South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol opened his state visit to Washington on Tuesday by touring a NASA facility with Vice President Kamala Harris as the Biden administration looks to deepen ties with a close ally that it sees as only growing in importance in an increasingly complicated Indo-Pacific.
Before Harris and Yoon's visit to the Goddard Space Flight Center in suburban Greenbelt, Md., the two countries signed a joint statement on cooperation in space communications and navigation, and received briefings from NASA scientists on cooperative efforts on space exploration and addressing the climate crisis,
“Our alliance is leading on some of the most important and pressing issues of our time,” Harris said in remarks with Yoon by her side at the NASA facility.
Yoon, for his part, recalled his exhilaration as a third-grader watching on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off Apollo 11 to become the first humans to set foot on the moon in 1969. Now, NASA and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute are working together to support future lunar exploration efforts searching for evidence of frost or ice deposits in permanently shadowed lunar regions.
Yoon said that the joint statement the two countries signed “will serve as a springboard for taking space cooperation between our two allies to the next level of a space alliance.”
“The universe holds great promise as the stage where synergies from international solidarity and partnerships can deliver their greatest benefits,” Yoon said.
Even before the formal itinerary for the Washington portion of Yoon's six-day visit to the United States got under way, South Korean and U.S. companies unveiled a pair of whopper deals.
General Motors and South Korea’s Samsung SDI announced plans on Tuesday to build a $3 billion new electric vehicle battery cell plant in a yet-to-be determined location in United States. That came after Yoon on Monday met with a Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarando, who said the streaming platform would invest $2.5 billion in Korea on programming over the next four years, a reflection of the global appetite for Korean music, movies and television.
“We were able to make this decision because we have great confidence that the Korean creative industry will continue to tell great stories,” Sarando said. “We were also inspired by the president’s love and strong support for the Korean entertainment industry and fueling the Korean wave.”
Later Tuesday, Yoon and his wife, Kim Keon Hee, made an evening visit to the Korean War Memorial with President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden. They participated in a wreath-laying ceremony next to the memorial's Pool of Remembrance.
Among other things, the Bidens presented their South Korean counterparts with a small handcrafted mahogany table inlaid with historical White House wood. It was topped with a vase filled with handmade paper hibiscuses and roses.
The visit comes just weeks after scores of highly classified documents were leaked that have complicated relations with allies, including South Korea. The papers viewed by The Associated Press indicate that South Korea’s National Security Council “grappled” with the U.S. in early March over an American request to provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine.
The documents, which cited a signals intelligence report, said then-NSC Director Kim Sung-han suggested the possibility of selling the 330,000 rounds of 155 mm munitions to Poland, since getting the ammunition to Ukraine quickly was the United States’ ultimate goal.
White House officials said that the leak wouldn't cause lingering tensions but also declined say if the two leaders would discuss South Korea supplying Ukraine with the much-need ammunition.
“We have said many times we are engaging more broadly with our allies and partners that help at high levels to reassure them of our commitment to safeguarding intelligence and, and fidelity to our security, securing partnerships,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. She added that the U.S. commitment to South Korea is “ironclad.”
Biden and Yoon, along with their aides, will hold formal talks Wednesday at the White House and the two leaders will hold a joint news conference. In the evening, Biden will honor Yoon with a lavish state dinner.
The leaders' private talks are expected to focus heavily on North Korea's nuclear program and China’s military and economic assertiveness.
Biden, during the Yoon visit, is also expected to announce specific new nuclear deterrence efforts as well as a new cybersecurity initiative, economic investments and an educational partnership, part of an effort to highlight the breadth and depth of the two countries’ relationship as they mark the 70th anniversary of their alliance.