Yoon’s decision has sent South Korea’s presidential office scrambling to downplay accusations that he avoided a meeting with Pelosi in a bid to appease China, as South Korea navigates growing competition between its largest trading partner and the United States, its greatest security ally.
The political novice, who won the presidency by the narrowest margin ever in South Korea, faces plummeting approval ratings less than three months after taking office. He pledged to make his country a “global pivot state” and a geopolitical force.
But his glaring absence from the world stage has drawn critics, who have accused South Korea’s conservative president of deliberately avoiding Pelosi for fear of reprisals from Beijing. His controversial visit to Taiwan has heightened tensions between the self-governing island and Beijing.
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Yoon’s office said he scrapped his summer travel plans and opted to stay in Seoul to plan his future political activities and rest at home.
Yoon’s spokesman, Choi Young-bum, said the president’s summer vacation was scheduled before Pelosi’s trip to Asia and that Yoon attended the theater performance before Pelosi’s plane arrived. . According to Choi, Yoon said he was unavailable to meet Pelosi, who flew to South Korea that evening.
“I received questions about whether the president avoided meeting with the Speaker of the House because he was suspicious of China,” Choi said. “All of these things are decided on the basis of a thorough consideration of the national interest of our country.”
He also dismissed a reporter’s question suggesting that Yoon’s unavailability signaled a change in Seoul’s roster amid the U.S.-China rivalry, calling the question “overblown.”
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Instead of an in-person meeting, the South Korean president and Pelosi spoke by phone Thursday night about strengthening the bilateral alliance and cooperation on regional security issues, according to a reading from Yoon’s office.
Yoon, who took office in May, has pledged to “rebuild” the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which he says has deteriorated under incumbent liberal President Moon Jae-in. The Moon administration has sought to work with North Korean allies, including China, to help broker a peace deal with Pyongyang.
While Yoon has promised a tougher political stance on Beijing, South Korea is still walking a fine line. South Korea’s right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper ran an op-ed titled “Yoon’s Avoidance of Pelosi Meeting Could Send Bad Signals to US and China.” The newspaper warned the South Korean government that a “submissive attitude” towards China can damage geopolitical relations.
Pelosi is due to fly to Japan on Thursday evening after visiting the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea. During their phone conversation, Yoon called his visit to the border area “a sign of strong deterrence against North Korea”, his presidential office said.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is due to meet Pelosi on Friday on the final leg of his trip.