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South Korea's Yoon Suk-Yeol Wows Joe Biden with a Song and Takes Home a Submarine

The US leader praised Yoon Suk-yeol for his rendition of the song, "American Pie" and also for his bold steps toward improving relations with Japan.

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US President Joe Biden presents South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol with a guitar signed by Don McLean. McLean is the singer who made "American Pie" famous. At the White House dinner on April 26. (© Reuters via Kyodo)

Only a few people are called upon to sing at the invitation of presidents of the United States. These seasoned professionals are hard acts to follow. But on Wednesday, April 26, President Joe Biden handed the microphone to another performer: President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea.

He joined a club of megastars.

Marilyn Monroe famously sang "Happy Birthday, Mr President" to John F Kennedy in 1962.

Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Bob Dylan and Diana Ross performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. 

And Lady Gaga - dressed in a jaw-dropping navy and red Haute Couture gown - delivered a spirited rendition of the national anthem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden in 2021. 

Mr Yoon gamely belted out Don McLean's classic song "American Pie," singing it so well that dignitaries at a state dinner burst into applause.

The event reminded me of a wonderful story about the former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who sang Elvis Presley hits on a visit to Graceland with President George W Bush in 2006.

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Elvis was Mr Koizumi's musical hero. So it must have been a thrill for him to be guided around Graceland by Presley's only child and heir, Lisa Marie, and her mother, Priscilla. Draping his arm around Lisa Marie, the prime minister crooned "Love me Tender."

The Presleys and the two leaders even entered the Jungle Room - a private den decorated with floor-to-ceiling green shag carpet and ceramic monkeys. I imagine they had quite a party. 

Junichiro Koizumi Yoon Suk-yeol
Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi does an Elvis Presley impression with Priscilla Presley and Lisa Marie Presley and George Bush watching. At Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2006. (© REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Musical Diplomacy

Such fun and games have a serious diplomatic purpose. The United States uses music to get close to leaders of its Asian allies. 

The rest of Mr Yoon's trip to Washington this week was filled with weighty responsibilities, including major political speeches and discussions about the North Korean nuclear weapons threat.

Seventeen years ago, Mr Koizumi's visit to Memphis also followed talks in Washington about North Korea, as well as Iraq, which was a pressing issue at the time. The current Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida was honored with a state dinner at the White House in January 2023 - although there was no public singing.

This year's Biden-Kishida summit was a success because it served to reaffirm the close strategic convergence between the two nations. Likewise, President Yoon's visit in the last week of April was designed to reinforce the alliance between South Korea and the United States, which Mr Biden described as "iron clad."

Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and President Biden shake hands during a ceremony at the White House on April 26. (© AP via Kyodo)

Call for Reassurance

Although there were warm welcomes for both Mr Kishida and Mr Yoon, in my view the United States is sending rather different messages to Japan and South Korea. In a way it seems to be saying, "Yes, you are both our friends. But we'd like a bit more reassurance of loyalty from the South Korean side, please."

When it comes to Japan, the loyalty of the Kishida government is beyond doubt. Mr Kishida's Cabinet endorsed a significant increase in defense spending in December 2022. That made it easier for the US to justify its huge military presence in Japan.

When he arrived in Washington earlier this year, Mr Kishida was offering strong diplomatic and financial support to Ukraine. And he had backed stringent sanctions against Russia.

Furthermore, Japan has explicitly called out Chinese behavior that undermines the rules-based international order. The National Security Strategy developed under Mr Kishida identifies China as Japan's biggest strategic challenge. 

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South Korea, on other hand, has - until quite recently - been "walking a tightrope between the battling hegemons" according to the Nikkei. 

In 2017, former President Moon Jae In said in an interview that Seoul would pursue "balanced diplomacy by deepening further its relations with China while placing importance on its relationship with the US"

Mr Moon also made a number of comments which suggested he attached relatively low importance to the trilateral security alliance with the US and Japan. China pressed South Korea to keep Japan at arm's length.

Japanese television broadcasts reported the J-Alert nationwide alert system at 7:55 AM on information that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile on the morning of April 13. (©Sankei Shimbun)

Bold Steps

Things have changed significantly since President Moon's departure. Following the election victory last year of Yoon Suk-yeol, he has made a real effort to patch things up with Japan.

In a joint statement released during Mr Yoon's visit to Washington, the White House said: "the two Presidents emphasized the importance of US- ROK - Japan trilateral cooperation, guided by shared values, driven by innovation, and committed to shared prosperity and security."

The statement continued: "President Biden welcomed President Yoon's bold steps toward improving ROK - Japan relations and extended strong support for expanding ROK - Japan collaboration, which opens the door to deeper trilateral cooperation on regional and economic security."

Nuclear Armed Subs

The centerpiece of Mr Yoon's state visit was a landmark deal to counter the growing nuclear threat from North Korea.

The US will send nuclear armed submarines to the Korean Peninsula. And Seoul is being given some say over how and when such weapons may be used.

The BBC's Seoul Correspondent Jean Mckenzie says: "Politicians here have long been pushing to be more involved in this process, fearful that the US might abandon them as North Korea's nuclear arsenal grows in size and sophistication. 

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"That fear has led to calls from within South Korea for it to make its own weapons. This new deal seeks to prevent that. In return for the US commitment, the South Korean government has had to promise it will not pursue its own nuclear program."

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Japan's Advocacy of Nuclear Disarmament

In Japan, Prime Minister Kishida has actively advocated for nuclear disarmament to realize a world without nuclear weapons.

However, Kosuke Takahashi, Tokyo Correspondent for Jane's Defense Weekly analyzes the difficulty in getting there. He says, "With Russia and North Korea issuing direct threats to use tactical nuclear weapons and China expanding its nuclear arsenal, the reality is that Japan is becoming more dependent on the United States' "nuclear umbrella" of deterrence than ever before."

It is a troubling thought that a part of this "umbrella" is a nuclear-armed American sub operating close to the Korean Peninsula.

Mr Kishida will have an opportunity to raise the issue directly with Joe Biden when the US president comes to Hiroshima for the G7 summit meeting in May. It is an event which South Korea's leader Yoon Suk-yeol is also likely to attend as a guest.

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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Duncan Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.