During her closely watched tour this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan — but not the president of South Korea. He was on a staycation, according to the official explanation.
President Yoon Suk-yeol attended a theater performance in Seoul shortly before Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived late Wednesday and socialized with the actors over dinner and drinks. Those photos went viral on social media on Thursday, as Pelosi met with senior South Korean lawmakers.
Yoon’s decision sent South Korea’s presidential office scrambling to downplay accusations that he avoided a meeting with Pelosi in order to appease China, as South Korea navigates the rising competition between its largest trading partner and its most important security ally, the United States.
The political newcomer, who won the presidency by the smallest margin in South Korean history, is facing plummeting approval ratings less than three months after taking office. He has promised to transform his country into a “global pivotal state” and geopolitical force.
However, his conspicuous absence from the global stage infuriated critics, who accused the conservative South Korean president of deliberately excluding Pelosi out of fear of retaliation from Beijing. Her contentious visit to Taiwan heightened tensions between the self-governing island and China.
Yoon’s office stated that he canceled his summer travel plans in favor of a staycation in Seoul to plan for future political activities and rest at home.
Choi Young-bum, Yoon’s spokesman, said the president’s summer vacation was planned ahead of Pelosi’s Asia trip, and Yoon attended the theater performance before Pelosi’s plane arrived. Yoon, according to Choi, stated that he was unavailable to meet with Pelosi, who arrived in South Korea that evening.
“I’ve been asked if the president avoided meeting with the House speaker because he was concerned about China,” Choi said. “All of these decisions are made after careful consideration of our country’s national interest.”
He also dismissed a reporter’s question about Yoon’s absence signaling a shift in Seoul’s alignment amid the US-China rivalry, calling it a “exaggeration.”
According to a readout from Yoon’s office, the South Korean president and Pelosi spoke by phone late Thursday about strengthening the bilateral alliance and cooperating on regional security issues instead of meeting in person.
Yoon, who took office in May, has promised to “rebuild” the US-South Korean alliance, which he claims has deteriorated under outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in. The Moon administration attempted to work with North Korean allies, particularly China, to help broker a peace deal with Pyongyang.
While Yoon promised a tougher stance against Beijing, South Korea is still treading carefully. The right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper in South Korea published an editorial titled, “Yoon’s avoidance of Pelosi meeting may send wrong signals to the US and China.” The paper warned the South Korean government that adopting a “submissive attitude” toward China could change geopolitical relationships.
Pelosi is set to fly to Japan late Thursday after touring the heavily fortified demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea. Yoon described her visit to the border area as “a sign of a strong deterrence against North Korea” during their phone conversation, according to his presidential office.
On the final stop of her trip, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to meet with Pelosi on Friday.