Yoon’s decision prompted South Korea’s presidential office to downplay accusations that he avoided meeting Pelosi in an effort to placate China, as South Korea navigates the growing competition between its largest trading partner and the United States, its largest security ally.
The political novice, who won the presidency by the narrowest margin ever in South Korea, is facing a sharp drop in approval ratings less than three months after taking office. He vowed to make his country a A “global pivot country” and a geopolitical power.
But his stark absence on the world stage drew criticism, and they accused the conservative South Korean president of deliberately ignoring Pelosi over concerns about Beijing’s retaliation. Her controversial visit to Taiwan has escalated tensions between the autonomous island and Beijing.
Yoon’s office said he has canceled his summer travel plans and opted for a stay in Seoul to plan future political activities and rest at home.
Yoon’s spokesman, Choi Young-bum, said the president’s summer vacation is planned ahead of Pelosi’s Asian trip and that Yoon attended the theatrical performance before Pelosi’s plane arrived. According to Choi, Yoon said he was not available to meet with Pelosi, who flew to South Korea that evening.
“I got questions about whether the president avoided meeting with the speaker of the House of Representatives because he was wary of China,” Choi said. “All these matters are determined based on a comprehensive study of the national interests of our country.”
He also dismissed a reporter’s question that Yoon’s unavailability indicates a shift in Seoul’s alignment amid the US-China rivalry, calling the question an “exaggeration.”
Instead of meeting face to face, the South Korean president and Pelosi spoke by phone late Thursday 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, vowed to “rebuild” the US-South Korea alliance, which he said had deteriorated under outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in. The Moon administration sought to work with North Korean allies, particularly China, to help broker a peace agreement with Pyongyang.
While Yun has vowed to take a stronger political stance from Beijing, South Korea is still walking a fine line. The right-leaning South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published an editorial titled “Yon’s avoidance of meeting with Pelosi may send wrong signals to the United States and China.” The newspaper warned the South Korean government that a “submissive attitude” toward China could alter geopolitical relations.
Pelosi is scheduled to fly to Japan late Thursday after visiting the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. In their phone conversation, Yoon described her visit to the border region as “a sign of strong deterrence against North Korea,” his presidential office said.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to meet Pelosi on Friday on the last leg of her trip.