After U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi captivated the world’s attention with a groundbreaking trip to Taiwan, she received far less fanfare on her next stop.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has seen his approval rating drop to near historic depths just three months after taking office, didn’t see it necessary to greet Pelosi in person — opting for a phone call instead.
“President Yoon’s vacation schedule and Speaker Pelosi’s visit to the Republic of Korea overlapped, and we did not rearrange our schedule,” his office said in a statement.
Yoon will likely be the only leader not to meet Pelosi during her high-stakes Asia trip, which included becoming the highest-level US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years, as well as the first sitting House speaker to visit South Korea in about 20 years.
Although Yoon has pledged to rebuild security ties with the country’s long-standing American ally and take a tough line with China, his popularity has swiftly fallen in recent weeks over numerous missteps. Putting off a meeting with one of the most powerful U.S. politicians risks adding to the self-inflicted damage that has dogged his government since it took power in May.
“The optics look very bad,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul at the Center for a New American Security. “It could raise serious questions in Washington about Yoon’s ability to walk the talk about being a self-proclaimed globally pivotal state, a strong team player on Team Democracy, and being able to stand up to China to protect its own national interest.”
Every other South Korean president has met Pelosi since she first became speaker in 2007, and President Roh Moo-hyun met her in 2006 during a visit to Washington. She is the first sitting House speaker to arrive in South Korea since Dennis Hastert in 2002. Pelosi is set to meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday in Tokyo in the final leg on her trip.
During her brief stop in South Korea, Pelosi and her congressional delegation met lawmakers at parliament in Seoul, where they agreed to work to end North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The U.S. and South Korea have warned that Kim Jong Un’s regime may soon conduct its first nuclear test since 2017, as he modernizes an arsenal of weapons designed to deliver atomic warheads to the U.S. mainland and its allies in Asia.
Pelosi’s agenda also included a trip to the Panmunjom truce village in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Koreas. The place where soldiers from the two sides stare down each other is a symbol of military tensions that have simmered since the US came to South Korea’s defense in 1950 after North Korea invaded and started the Korean War.
Yoon Young-chan, a lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party who served as a press secretary to Yoon’s predecessor, former President Moon Jae-in, said the decision not to meet the U.S. House speaker “may send a wrong message to our ally.”
“It would be hard to convince both Washington and our people that he is simply not seeing Pelosi as it overlapped with his holiday schedule,” Yoon Young-chan added. The president’s office said he was watching a play the night Pelosi arrived.
Since winning a presidential election in March decided by the closest margin in the country’s history, Yoon has seen his support erode. Several major decisions have proved unpopular and touched off waves of criticism, including relocating the presidential office, announcing plans to shut the Gender Equality Ministry, giving his government more power over police and lowering the age children begin school by a year.
Yoon’s support rate hit 28.9% in a survey taken less than a week ago by the Korea Society Opinion Institute, with the approval numbers of his administration ranking among the lowest for any president since South Korea became a full democracy in 1987. Although there is ample time to reverse course in his single, five-year term that started in May, the former prosecutor’s early stumbles have raised questions about whether he can make the transition to running a government.
Yoon has won praise from the Biden administration for bringing changes to South Korea’s security posture. That has helped the U.S. as it looks to build alliances among partners for a united front against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, push back against an assertive China and try to end North Korea’s atomic ambitions.
His government has also raised South Korea’s stature in international groupings such as NATO, and brought back joint military exercises with the U.S. that had been scaled down or halted under former President Donald Trump to facilitate his nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
But Yoon’s government has waffled on joining the Biden administration’s proposed groupings such as the so-called Chip 4 alliance to safeguard the supply of semiconductors, which are vital for modern technologies and future ones like artificial intelligence. South Korean chipmakers such as SK Hynix Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. could be hamstrung by moves that cause a backlash from China, where the companies have production bases for memory chips.
While having neither Yoon or his foreign minister meet Pelosi may be seen as a “diplomatic discourtesy,” it won’t cause any major damage to the alliance between South Korea and the U.S., according to Yang Seung-ham, a professor emeritus of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“At a time when Pelosi has created controversy in Taiwan, the presidential office may have wanted to distance itself from any political conflict,” Yang said. “She is still the No. 3 in the U.S., after all, and it wouldn’t have hurt Yoon to greet her in person.”