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South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol to visit Honolulu this week

South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol will be on Oahu this week to meet with top U.S. military officials before flying to Washington, D.C., to deliver a keynote address at the 2024 NATO Public Forum.

He is expected to arrive in Honolulu today and will lay a wreath at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and on Tuesday will meet at Camp Smith with military leaders at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

It will be the first visit to Camp Smith by a South Korean president since the Pa­ci­fic Command was renamed Indo-Pacific Command in 2018. A senior South Korean official with knowledge of Yoon’s trip said “there is an understanding that the U.S. defense concept, in tandem with the upgrading of the ROK-U.S. alliance, has expanded to cover broader issues, including some pertaining to the Indian Ocean region.”

In 2022 the South Korean government released its own new Indo-Pacific strategy, which asserts its role as a “global pivotal state” and calls for greater engagement with countries around the region with an emphasis on Southeast Asia and going as far west as Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline.

Yoon’s visit also comes as tensions in the Pacific have gripped the region as China spars with neighbors over maritime territorial rights and as Russia and North Korea have bolstered military ties amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and heightened anxiety around missile tests and training exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

The South Korean official said “in light of North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile threats, and the distinctive cooperation between Russia and North Korea triggered by the war in Ukraine, we have planned this trip to the upcoming NATO Summit to focus on a coherent security concept.”

Ukraine war in focus

The war in Ukraine has become an unexpectedly major issue on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea is one of the few countries that has openly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the beginning. Since Russian forces tried and failed to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in February 2022, turning what was a relatively low-intensity conflict between the two into a full-blown war, reports have trickled out alleging that North Korea was supplying munitions and other war- fighting material to Russia as casualties mounted.

Meanwhile, South Korean- manufactured weapons and military supplies have been making their way to Eastern Europe. Though South Korea has not directly sold or supplied weapons to Ukraine, countries like Poland reportedly have passed on South Korean military material to Ukrainian forces.

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a new strategic partnership that includes a pledge that if either is at war, they would deploy “all means at its disposal without delay” to provide “military and other assistance.”

Yoon’s office condemned the agreement, releasing a statement that said, “It’s absurd that two parties with a history of launching wars of invasion — the Korean War and the war in Ukraine — are now vowing mutual military cooperation on the premise of a preemptive attack by the international community that will never happen.”

Officials in Yoon’s administration say they are now reconsidering providing direct military aid to Ukraine.

South Korea is one of the “Indo-Pacific Four” countries, or IP4, which are not members of the European NATO alliance, but have become closely aligned in the 21st century. The others are Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The partnership grew through post-9/11 anti- terrorism operations and anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean to protect international shipping from Somali pirates. Now, concerns about tensions in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific have led European countries to pay closer attention to the region — and to the IP4.

The South China Sea is a particularly critical waterway that more than a third of all global trade travels through — including 40 percent of all European trade with the world. International leaders and analysts have expressed concern that the establishment of blockades or the breakout of open conflict in the Pacific would send shock waves through the global economy.

In January, NATO’s director of policy planning, Bene­detta Berti, attended a military affairs conference in Waikiki hosted by Honolulu think tank Pacific Forum. At this year’s Exercise Rim of the Pacific, three NATO member countries — Germany, Italy and the Netherlands — sent ships for the first time.

Though the Russian military has been tied up with operations in Ukraine, it also historically maintains a sizable Pacific force and has long had interests in the region. Russia is a major exporter of both oil and weapons to Pacific and Indian Ocean nations. Before the Ukraine war severed its trade ties with the United States, Russia oil was a key source of oil that Hawaii once relied on to power its electrical grid.

Russia, China team up

In June 2021 the Russian navy held its largest exercise in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War — 400 miles west of Hawaii. Lately, the Russian Pacific Fleet has been conducting joint patrols with the Chinese navy around Japan and as far north as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Their most recent joint patrol began Thursday. Russia’s Pacific Fleet announced the ships were in the Korea Strait near Jeju Island.

In a released statement, Russia’s Pacific Fleet said “the objectives of the joint patrol are to strengthen naval cooperation between Russia and China, maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, monitor the maritime area and protect maritime economic facilities of the Russian Federation and China.”

The Russian navy is also a regular visitor to the Hawaiian Islands, quietly dispatching spy ships to look in on missile tests at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai and on exercises like RIMPAC. South Korea is one of 29 countries participating in RIMPAC this year and has been a regular attendee.

Some view the increasing coordination between NATO and Pacific countries with deep suspicion.

Activists with the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition and the Resist NATO Coalition have joined forces this year, holding a series of coordinated protest events in Hawaii, San Diego and Washington to condemn the strengthening of alliances between the United States and Asian and European countries. Organizers of the protests argue that exercises like RIMPAC are stoking tensions and assert that China, Russia and North Korea are protecting themselves from U.S.-led aggression and proxy conflicts.

NATO officials have been cautious in how they discuss their growing interest in the Pacific region. In 2023 there was discussion of setting up a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, but some alliance members like France reportedly expressed concern it could antagonize China, and the proposal was shelved.

Berti told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that “NATO’s core mission remains the same: security and defense of the allies with a focus on the Euro-Atlantic.”

“So it’s not so much that NATO is thinking about expanding its role, changing its role or changing its footprint; that’s not what this is about,” Berti said. “We understand, I think, that we are in a more global and interconnected world, and therefore in order to fulfill our mission of the defense and security of the Euro-Atlantic, we need to understand security trends in other regions can affect European security. And I think the Indo- Pacific is probably the most important region from a geostrategic economics perspective in the world.”

When Yoon delivers his keynote at the NATO Public Forum, he will become the first South Korean president to attend the event as a speaker. South Korean officials told the Star-Advertiser that he is also expected to meet with the leaders of the other IP4 countries at the summit.
Source: The Garden Island

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