The Washington Post

South Korea’s president skips Pelosi meeting

Nation’s leader accused of shunning U.S. House speaker to placate China


SEOUL — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met leaders of Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan in her closely watched tour this week — but not the South Korean president. The official reason: He was on a staycation.

Just before Pelosi (D- Calif.) arrived late Wednesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol attended a theater performanc­e in Seoul and socialized over dinner and drinks with the actors. On Thursday, as Pelosi met with senior South Korean lawmakers, those photos went viral on social media.

Yoon’s decision sent South Korea’s presidenti­al office scrambling to downplay accusation­s that he shunned a meeting with Pelosi in a bid to placate China, as South Korea navigates the rising competitio­n between its largest trading partner and the United States, its biggest security ally.

The political novice, who won the presidency with the narrowest margin ever in South Korea, faces plummeting approval ratings less than three months after taking office. He has vowed to make his country a “global pivotal state” and a geopolitic­al force.

But his glaring absence on the global stage fired up critics, who accused the conservati­ve South Korean president of deliberate­ly shunning Pelosi out of concerns about retaliatio­n from Beijing. Her controvers­ial visit to Taiwan escalated tensions between the self-governing island and Beijing.

Yoon’s office said he scrapped his summer travel plans and opted for a Seoul staycation to plan for future political activities and rest at home.

Yoon’s spokesman, Choi Young-bum, said the president’s summer holiday was planned ahead of Pelosi’s Asia trip and that Yoon attended the theater performanc­e before Pelosi’s plane arrived. According to Choi, Yoon said he was not available to meet Pelosi, who flew to South Korea that evening.

“I have received questions about whether the president avoided meeting with the House speaker because he was wary of China,” Choi said. “All these things are decided based on a thorough considerat­ion of our country’s national interest.”

He also dismissed a reporter’s question suggesting that Yoon’s unavailabi­lity signaled a shift in Seoul’s alignment amid the U.S.- China rivalry, calling the question an “exaggerati­on.”

In place of an in-person meeting, the South Korean president and Pelosi spoke by phone late Thursday about strengthen­ing the bilateral alliance and cooperatin­g on regional security issues, according to a readout from Yoon’s office.

Yoon, who took office in May, pledged to “rebuild” the U.s.-south Korean alliance, which he said deteriorat­ed under outgoing liberal president Moon Jae-in.

The Moon administra­tion sought to work with allies of North Korea, notably China, to help broker a peace deal with Pyongyang.

While Yoon vowed a stronger political stance on Beijing, South Korea still walks a fine line. South Korea’s right-leaning Chosun Ilbo newspaper ran an editorial titled, “Yoon’s avoidance of Pelosi meeting may send wrong signals to the U.S. and China.” The paper warned the South Korean government that a “submissive attitude” toward China can alter geopolitic­al relationsh­ips.

Pelosi is scheduled to fly to Japan late Thursday after visiting the heavily fortified demilitari­zed zone between South and North Korea. In their phone conversati­on, Yoon called her visit to the border area “a sign of a strong deterrence against North Korea,” his presidenti­al office said.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to meet with Pelosi on Friday on the final stop of her trip.

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