Lee Soo-hyuck, the South Korean ambassador to the U.S. told lawmakers in Seoul, “Just because South Korea chose the U.S. 70 years ago doesn’t mean it has to choose the U.S. for the next 70 years, too.”
That statement came during a virtual appearance before the South Korean parliament, as the American rivalry with China intensifies, according to a key envoy. It’s the latest in a series of comments from the ambassador that have seemed to cast doubt on how South Korea will position itself as China emerges as a global force even as U.S. officials warn that Beijing is waging a “cold war” against the U.S. and democratic allies.
“I feel pride that we are now a country that can choose [between the U.S. and China], not be forced to choose,” Soo-hyuck said in June. “As we did in our response to the coronavirus, if we wisely resolve various issues in line with our national interests based on democracy, civic participation, human rights, and openness, I believe we will be able to increase our diplomatic space in major international issues.”
China is South Korea’s largest economic partner, but South Korea has depended on the U.S. military for protection against the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea since the end of the Korean conflict in 1953.
Soo-hyuck said in September, “Korea’s geopolitical uniqueness, the fact that the United States is our ally while China is one of our biggest trading partners in the region, needs to be considered. It could be a strength or weakness, depending on how we address and utilize it. And as the Korean ambassador, this is something to be mindful of when dealing with Korean Peninsula affairs.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to strike agreements with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that would ease the risk of a conflict. Also, the negotiations between the United States and North Korea have broken down as Kim refuses to surrender nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
“I am not to say that if the end of war is declared, the nuclear weapons will be abandoned like a magic wand,” Soo-hyuck told lawmakers in his latest appearance. “But as it could have significant meaning for the denuclearization process, the U.S. shares this understanding, and we are waiting for the North’s understanding,” he said.
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