President Yoon Suk Yeol left for San Francisco on Wednesday to attend the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation member countries amid expectations building for a possible meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Yoon's participation in the 21-member APEC summit came at a time when an arms deal between North Korea and Russia is becoming a headache to South Korea and its allies.
Yoon is likely to address the deepening ties between Pyongyang and Moscow, in an attempt to turn attention to North Korea while the world is preoccupied with conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine.
Seoul has viewed the summit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia's Far East in September as crucial for the development of their respective militaries.
In exchange for artillery shells and military equipment to the country that invaded Ukraine in early 2022, North Korea has allegedly been looking to increase its chances of putting a spy satellite into orbit with the help of Russia's space capacity. Seoul believes that the spy satellite capabilities from Russia are a cover for its technology development for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could directly target Washington.
“If North Korea succeeds in launching the military reconnaissance satellite, it would signify that North Korea’s ICBM capabilities have been taken to a higher level,” Yoon said in a written interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Therefore, we will have to come up with reinforced countermeasures.”
First deputy director of the presidential National Security Office Kim Tae-hyo said in a briefing on Nov. 8 that efforts are underway to arrange closed-door bilateral talks between Yoon and an undisclosed number of countries during his US visit. Kim declined to disclose further details about these bilateral meetings.
Later, Yoon's office confirmed that Yoon is scheduled Friday to speak at Stanford University together with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and engage in a discussion there.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Tuesday that no concrete plans for the summit between Seoul and Beijing have been confirmed, amid anticipation that a summit between Yoon and Xi could take place in San Francisco for the first time in a year.
Xi is visiting the US for the first time in six years to attend the APEC summit. The Chinese leader is scheduled to have a summit with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday, in what will be their first in-person summit since one in Bali last November.
Seoul has expressed hopes that Xi could play a constructive role as a mediator between Russia and North Korea to stop their military cooperation.
"The heightened geopolitical tension in the East Asian region due to North Korea-Russia military cooperation will undermine Beijing's national interest," Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said on Nov. 9 during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Seoul.
"South Korea and the US will continue to join forces to urge China to play such a role to let the dangerous deal collapse by taking into account the concerns of China's neighboring countries and the entire international community," he said.
Seoul's plan to host a trilateral summit of South Korea, China and Japan before the year's end -- with an invitation to Xi for either a bilateral or trilateral meeting involving Japan -- is likely, according to Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. However, Xi's visit to Korea is uncertain, given the history of "Seoul's failure to let Xi save face" by deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to intercept missiles, he said.
Besides the APEC sessions, Yoon is also poised to attend a summit of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Thursday. Yoon's office said in a statement Sunday that Yoon will discuss "concrete plans for cooperation" between member states, without elaborating further on the agenda.
Yoon said in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday that he aims to discuss practical ways to achieve supply chain diversification and to boost trade and investment between APEC member countries, which produce a combined 60 percent of the world's gross domestic product.
The IPEF is a US-led initiative to reach an agreement with 13 other member states in the fields of trade, the clean economy, anticorruption and supply chain cooperation, an apparent move to counter China's growing regional economic influence. The IPEF members reached an agreement over only one out of four of the pillars, or supply chain cooperation, in May.
But the Biden administration initiative, apparently designed to regain US presence in the Asian region economy-wise, has faced some setbacks.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday said negotiations on the trade section of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework have "remaining issues."
"There's been significant progress, but it looks not to be complete, like something that is likely to require further work," Yellen told a news conference.
In the previous week, US Democrat Senators Sherrod Brown and Ron Wyden asked Biden to remove the entire trade pillar from IPEF.
Jo Sang-hyeon, head of the Institute for International Trade at the Korea International Trade Association, said the gap in economic development between the 14 IPEF members led to the failure to include some key clauses that the US had sought, such as enforceable labor standards. The failure to include these clauses could potentially trigger the revival of protectionism within the US, possibly affecting the 2024 US presidential elections.
"Yoon's presence at the IPEC meeting is unlikely to change the situation dramatically," Jo said. "Instead, Yoon's attendance at the IPEC summit will send a gesture of Korea's support for the US-led multilateral framework to signal stronger strategic ties with the US."
After returning home on Saturday, Yoon will again fly to visit the United Kingdom and France the following week. Yoon's office also announced plans to visit the Netherlands in December.
Yoon will have gone on 16 visits to foreign countries by the end of this year -- all within the first 19 months since he took office.