Yoon’s decision directed South Korea’s presidential office to play down accusations that it avoided a meeting with Pelosi to appease China as it navigates the escalating rivalry between South Korea’s biggest trading partner and the United States, its biggest security ally.
The political novice who won the presidency by the narrowest margin ever in South Korea is facing low approval ratings less than three months after taking office. He promised to make his country a “global core state” and geopolitical power.
But her inconspicuous absence from the global stage has fueled critics, who have accused the conservative South Korean president of deliberately avoiding Pelosi for fear of retribution from Beijing. His controversial visit to Taiwan raised tensions between the self-ruled island and Beijing.
Yoon’s office said he canceled summer travel plans and chose to stay in Seoul to plan 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 Yoon attended a theater performance before Pelosi’s plane arrived. According to Choi, Yoon said he was not available to meet with Pelosi, who was flying to South Korea that evening.
“I’ve had questions about the president avoiding meeting with the speaker of the House because he’s wary of China,” Choi said. “All these issues to be considered are decided based on the national interests of our country.”
He also dismissed a reporter’s question that Yoon’s unavailability was a change in Seoul’s alignment amid the US-China rivalry, calling the question an “exaggeration.”
Instead of a one-on-one meeting, the South Korean president and Pelosi spoke by phone Thursday evening about strengthening the bilateral alliance and cooperation on regional security issues, Yoon’s office said.
Yoon, who took office in May, has vowed to “rebuild” the US-South Korea alliance, which he says has deteriorated under liberal President Moon Jae-in. The Moon administration has sought to work with North Korea’s allies, particularly China, to broker a peace deal with Pyongyang.
While Yoon has promised a stronger political stance against Beijing, South Korea is still walking a fine line. South Korea’s right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper published an editorial entitled “Yoon’s avoidance of the Pelosi meeting may send wrong signals to the US and China.” The newspaper warned the South Korean government that a “submissive attitude” towards China could change geopolitical relations.
Pelosi is scheduled to fly to Japan on Thursday after visiting the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. In a phone conversation, Yoon called his visit to the border region “a sign of strong deterrence against North Korea,” the president’s office said.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to meet with Pelosi on the last stop of his trip on Friday.