Event Recap

On September 28, 2021, the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, hosted the 2021 Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum, an annual conference that brings together US and ROK officials and experts to develop forward-looking recommendations for the US-ROK alliance. This year’s forum focused specifically on science, technology, innovation, and advancing the security alliance. 

The forum opened with remarks by Mr. Frederick Kempe, Atlantic Council President and CEO, and Dr. Geun Lee, Korea Foundation President. Following opening remarks, The Honorable Kin Moy, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, delivered keynote remarks, emphasizing the importance of the enduring US-ROK alliance by referring to the relationship as a “deep friendship” that was of great importance in the region and the world. He also underscored the value of the growing trade investment relationship between the two countries, particularly following the joint statement made by the two presidents in May of this year. Regarding North Korea, he reiterated the Biden Administration’s calibrated, practical approach toward the denuclearization of the peninsula, along with a strong condemnation of the recent North Korean ballistic missile launches. Despite this, he declared that the United States has initiated dialogue with Pyongyang and “stands ready to meet without preconditions.” Likewise, he stated, “the United States will continue to support the provision of humanitarian aid, consistent with international standards for access and monitoring to the most vulnerable North Koreans, regardless of progress on denuclearization.” Regarding trilateral cooperation among the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, he declared that “trilateral defense cooperation is more important than ever,” and the countries are “working together to strengthen bilateral and trilateral cooperation to address challenges like climate change, COVID-19, supply chain resiliency, cyber threats, and threats to the rules-based international order and human rights on a global scale.” Finally, The Hon. Kin Moy closed by stating, “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding human rights, and respecting the rule of law are all fundamental values we share with the Republic of Korea…and we look forward to expanding our cooperation in the years to come as we work together to achieve global peace, security, and prosperity.” You can read the full transcript of the speech here. 

Session 1. Science, technology, and innovation: Operationalizing the next phase of US-ROK strategic economic cooperation 

The first session explored how the United States and Republic of Korea can operationalize economic cooperation in science, technology and innovation. This panel featured Dr. Robert Atkinson, President of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Amb. Seokyoung Choi, Senior Advisor at Lee & Ko and former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, H.E. Miyon Lee, Director General of Bilateral Economic Affairs at the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Miyeon Oh, Director and Senior Fellow, Asia Security Initiative Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council, and Dr. Sarah Staton, Deputy Director, Office of Science and Technology Cooperation, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affair at the US Department of State. 

Cooperation in a confrontational environment 

All panelists agreed that the US-ROK alliance has undergone significant progress following the May 2021 Moon-Biden summit. Director General Lee stated that “our partnership expanded not only to security but also economy with science and technology sector,” given that trade volume between the US and ROK has been tripled since the KORUS FTA agreement was signed ten years ago. In addition, she underscored “the exchange of people that embody talents and knowledge” by citing a pending bill, the Partner with Korea Act, which would deregulate the visa process for Korean professionals and students in the US. Echoing Lee, Dr. Staton called the Biden-Moon Summit “an excellent direction for science technology cooperation.” Staton mentioned a few ongoing consultations such as the US-ROK ICT policy forum, signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) on 6G and future wireless technologies, and joint research on infectious diseases. Noting the close partnership between the US and South Korea, Staton pointed out that the US “will be unable to succeed in this mission without close cooperation from our allies and partners.” 

Amb. Choi defined the recent confrontation between the US and China as “a collision of systems” of free-market mechanisms versus state-led capitalism. Under these circumstances, he urged Washington to take “a firm and clear position” in regional cooperative mechanisms such as CPTPP. Amb. Choi highlighted that the US has not yet taken a concrete position on CPTPP since 2018, while China is proactively moving towards enhancing its engagement with countries in the Indo-Pacific region through such mechanisms. In addition, he stated that “if China moves first, then the United States should also take positions on these actions.” In a similar vein, Dr. Atkinson noted in his remarks that “China is not a normal country” in terms of Beijing’s technology policies or its reliance on the free market system, stating that China desires to achieve the status of “technological autarky” and “dominance” across critical technologies.   

Pursuing a value-driven approach with allies and partners 

Dr. Atkinson commented that the United States “doesn’t have as many domestic resources, which means we need to be partnering more.” In response, the panelists agreed that partnership is a vital method of managing resources. Dr. Staton argued that collaborations need to be “on the foundation of shared values like transparency, reciprocity, diversity, inclusiveness, equity, and openness,” which she noted that the United States and South Korea already share. 

In particular, Dr. Atkinson highlighted the “stakeholder-driven approach” and “legal framework” regarding internet governance, noting the danger of Chinese compulsive industrial standards and abuse of personal data. Following his remarks, H.E. Lee stated that stakeholders and market forces should drive the discussion on digital economy and data governance, which necessitates “a balanced and holistic approach” based on “the value of democracy, human rights, and transparency.” Amb. Choi agreed on value-based digital cooperation in operational systems and data protection in order to compete with digital authoritarianism. Dr. Staton then posited that this approach could be a model to generate mutual benefits, specifically in “the collaboration on transfer of biotechnology data” during the pandemic.  

In response to Dr. Oh’s question on how the United States and South Korea can collaborate in Southeast Asia based on shared values, Amb. Choi referred to the joint statement between President Biden and President Moon as an “indication of the cooperative works.” He continued by stating that it is feasible for the United States and South Korea to share technologies or have a joint investment in third-party countries to tackle the climate change issue. In a similar vein, Dr. Staton stated that “[taking] scientists from both the United States and Korea and [putting] them together in a third-party country” to facilitate research is an actionable idea.  

On the other hand, Dr. Atkinson argued that both countries “should have to think a little more strategically.” Given the complexity of the supply chain, he stated, it creates a difficult position for stakeholders to leave China. However, cooperation in third-party countries should be expedited in a way to weaken the Chinese production system. Dr. Atkinson suggested that the United States could encouraging private companies to move facilities to partner countries, such as Vietnam or India, to encourage a more resilient and value-based supply chain. 

On industrial policy in the United States, H.E. Lee underlined the need for investments and technological cooperation to be “market-driven” and incorporate the “voices of the businesses.” As foreign private companies “are quite aware of the cost of having investments” in the United States, the United States should take into account incentives, as well as issues such as the labor shortage and logistics.  

Women’s economic empowerment  

On the question over what steps Washington and Seoul can take to advance the US-ROK alliance through women’s economic empowerment in science and technology, H.E. Lee described the issue of women’s empowerment as an “important subject that we haven’t really built up for bilateral cooperation.” Lee stated that empowering women in the areas of science and technology positively contributes to the economic development of both nations, highlighting that the US and ROK should have “further engagements and development” on how to support women’s economic empowerment within both countries.  

Dr. Staton followed by highlighting US efforts on women’s economic empowerment “throughout a very long time in gender dynamics” by means of “looking at the issues of networking, allyship, and sponsorship”, while also promoting initiatives that touch upon specific areas where female scientists are struggling. 

Session 2: Advancing the Security Alliance on the Peninsula and across the Indo-Pacific 

The second session explored how Washington and Seoul can take concrete steps to enhance the US-ROK security alliance within and beyond the Korean peninsula, featuring Mr. Mark Lambert, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Korea and Japan, US Department of State, The Hon. Mark Lippert, Senior Advisor, Korea Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Dr. Sang Hyun Lee, President of the Sejong Institute, The Hon. James B. Steinberg, Incoming Dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and former US Deputy Secretary of State, and Minister Young-kwan Yoon, Professor Emeritus at Seoul National University and former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the Republic of Korea. Dr. Miyeon Oh, director and senior fellow of the Asia Security Initiative, moderated the discussion. 

Emerging challenges for the US-ROK security alliance  

Mr. Mark Lambert opened up the discussion by delivering opening remarks highlighting the key security challenges across Asia and the Indo-Pacific and describing how these challenges reflect on the US-ROK alliance.  He grouped these challenges into three specific categories:  

I. Traditional security challenges, first and foremost “ensuring the safety of the Korean peninsula”; addressing security concerns surrounding North Korea; and maintaining “an inclusive, free, and open Indo-Pacific, particularly the freedom of commerce and navigation of countries in the region”. Mr. Lambert stated that joint efforts between Washington and Seoul in addressing these challenges have served as the “bedrock for the US-ROK alliance”.  

 II. Technology and information challenges that threaten the collective security of the United States and ROK – this includes disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks from adversaries. Mr. Lambert stated that “international institutions that set standards for new technologies are under threat” and “we must take steps to ensure the free flow of information in the future and that the adoption of these technologies embodies our values”. 

III. Emerging crises such as COVID-19 and global climate change – Mr. Lambert highlighted that “these are urgent, transnational issues that require mutual action” from governments around the world. The US and ROK to set “strong national standards” for themselves and take steps to assist developing countries reach these standards as well.  

Dr. James Steinberg highlighted in his opening remarks that the “hallmark” of US foreign policy since the beginning of the Biden Administration has been “a reemphasis on cooperation with allies and coalitions, which isn’t just rhetoric, but is seen in visits and activities by the US government with its allies and partners in the time since the Biden Administration took office”. 

Dr. Steinberg listed key challenges for US-ROK relations and the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. First, in the midst of its military pullout from Afghanistan, the United States should take steps to show it is “ready to commit in a real sense, not just politically, but militarily” to uphold the security of the Indo-Pacific region. It will also be key for Washington to “be convincing in reality” that the US objective in the Indo-Pacific is “not to make countries choose sides” amid US-China competition, as “numerous countries in the region have significant economic relations with China”. Nevertheless, Steinberg explained that the Quad “is a security agreement between countries brought by mutual concerns about China” – it is therefore imperative for Washington work together with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific without “drawing new cold war-like lines”. 

 Minister Young-kwan Yoon highlighted that “one of the most important decisions Biden has made as US President was to shift the focus of the Quad from a military-oriented organization to a non-military-oriented organization” – in his words, this has made it “much easier” for the ROK government to deepen its cooperation with the US in ensuring that there will be a “safer and more stable Indo-Pacific”. Yoon stated his optimism in increased levels of US-ROK bilateral cooperation, highlighting that “the current state of bilateral cooperation is quite good” and both Washington and Seoul have been working together “smoothly in the last year”, particularly in the time since the Biden Administration took office. Minister Yoon also expressed his hopes for “continued US-ROK cooperation across climate change, covid-19, and critical technologies”. 

Dr. Sang Hyun Lee opened his remarks by stating that the Joint US-ROK Statement from Presidents Moon and Biden in May 2021 clearly shows that the evolving nature of the US-ROK alliance– Dr. Lee stated that “the context for the alliance is changing, as the US and ROK work together to address new challenges such as COVID-19 and global climate change”. Dr. Lee highlighted that “behind the scenes there is missing global leadership” – while President Biden “claims that America is back”, Lee questioned whether the United States would remain committed to global leadership. In addition, Dr. Lee stated that although “China is not ready to take over global leadership”, US-China strategic competition is “now defining the global security landscape”. 

The Hon. Mark Lippert welcomed positive developments in the US-ROK bilateral relationship since President Biden’s assumption of office, highlighting that “the scope of the US-ROK alliance has been restored to a more global and regional focus with issues such as energy, climate change, and global health at the forefront”. Lippert stated that the Biden Administration has “repivoted towards alliance and partnerships” and that under the previous Trump administration “there was a deviation from the US bipartisan consensus on North Korea” that has now been restored. 

The Quad and US-China competition   

Participants agreed that US-China strategic competition will continue to be a key factor shaping Indo-Pacific affairs throughout this decade. Mr. Mark Lambert stated that President Biden has made it clear that the US “does not seek conflict with Beijing”, although Washington now clearly understands that while “there are areas for cooperation, and there are also areas where we will compete and our relationship will continue to be adversarial”. Lambert explained the need for the United States and its allies to “reaffirm the values of a free, rules-based international order by broadening our capacity to address mutual threats”. Progress has been made on this end, as Washington and Seoul are now working together to defeat COVID-19, climate change, and in critical technologies (such as supply chain resiliency).  Lambert highlighted the need for the US and ROK to build “resilient, broad coalitions” to ensure a “strong and safe Indo-Pacific” for the future. 

Dr. Sang Hyun Lee highlighted that the Biden administration is promoting a multilateral approach in its dealings with allies in the Indo-Pacific through mechanisms such as the Quad, AUKUS, the D10 (10 Democracies), and T12 (Group of Twelve, “12 like-minded countries with advanced technologies”) – in his words, “this seems to be not general multilateralism, but mission-driven partnerships”.  Dr. Lee stated that South Korea should work together with these groupings, however there are concerns that Seoul must take into account when doing so: for example, China, the ROK’s number one economic partner, has clearly stated that the Quad is an “anti-China alliance”- China in the past has heavily retaliated against the ROK due to THAAD.  

Minister Young-kwan Yoon underlined that “South Korea is unique and particular in terms of its geopolitical location” and therefore has difficulties in assuming an active military role in Asia. He explained this is “particularly because China is a neighbor”, in addition to “the DPRK issue”. Minister Yoon also expressed concerns that a potential indirect impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is that the Biden Administration “may be less inclined” to take a more active approach in negotiating with North Korea, as this may be seen as “weak for a democratic government” to engage in. 

North Korea  

Minister Young-kwan Yoon expressed his concerns that “China’s influence over North Korea will spill over into South Korea”, especially over ROK conservative party leaders, because of “the expectation that China will be able to help in denuclearizing North Korea”. Therefore, he argued for a more “out of the box” approach to the North Korea issue aimed at changing “the nature of US-DPRK relations” through negotiations and dialogue. Minister Yoon claimed that “China is enjoying the current status quo of an impasse on the Korean Peninsula and its influence over regional affairs has grown in recent years”, while North Korea “has been pushed into the orbit of China”. Minister Yoon expressed his agreement with Dr. Steinberg’s comments that the US and ROK need “deeper strategic dialogue”, highlighting that there “should be more dialogue between the US and ROK on the top level on where we should go” in pursuing denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. 

In response, Mr. Lambert stated that “it is a misperception that we (the US government) are not willing to talk to the DPRK”, highlighting that “we have made announcements that we are willing to talk to them without preconditions”. As for China, Mr. Lambert stated that “the Chinese were very focused on the DPRK nuclear issue when it was actively testing its missiles in the past” and have been less interested in assuming a larger role when the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been “at a standstill”.   

The Hon. Mark Lippert also expressed disagreement with the notion that “there isn’t enough attention paid to the North Korea issue by the US government”, stating that “it is a myth that the US isn’t willing to talk to the North Koreans”. He followed by highlighting that “the irony of the Trump-Kim summit was that it actually allowed Kim Jong-un and North Korea to engage with China much more than before” and China had to “bracket Kim for his summits”, as it played a key role in transporting him to Hanoi before the Trump-Kim Summit – Lippert stated that these developments have increased China’s influence on North Korea in recent years. In addition, Lippert raised the question of how the impact of COVID-19 on North Korea’s economy will affect potential incentives in future negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, as North Korea “has crushed its economy and isolated itself from the rest of the world” while rejecting COVID-19 vaccines from multiple countries around the world, including China and the US. 

In response to Dr. Oh’s question on China’s role in denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Dr. Steinberg stated that “it’s easy to say that China should be more helpful – yet we know that they think we should be making more concessions” (to North Korea). Steinberg highlighted that “there is nothing in it for China to have a nuclear North Korea”, yet there is a divergence in the US and Chinese views of how we both countries should address this issue, explaining that “we simply don’t have a shared view”. Dr. Steinberg also highlighted that the US and ROK are both dissatisfied with the current status quo vis-à-vis North Korea and its nuclear program, yet “the fundamental reality” is that the current impasse is better than a worse alternative. 

10:45 – 10:55 a.m. (EDT)

Opening remarks

Frederick Kempe
President and CEO
Atlantic Council

Geun Lee
Korea Foundation

10:55 a.m. (EDT)

Keynote session

The Hon. Kin Moy
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
US Department of State

12:00 – 1:15 p.m. (EDT)

Panel session 1

“Science, technology, and innovation: Operationalizing the next phase of US-ROK strategic economic cooperation”

Robert Atkinson
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

H.E. Seokyoung Choi
Senior Advisor, Lee & Ko;
Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva

H.E. Miyon Lee
Director General, Bilateral Economic Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea

Miyeon Oh
Director and Senior Fellow, Asia Security Initiative,
Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

Sarah Staton
Deputy Director, Office of Science and Technology Cooperation, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
US Department of State

1:20 – 2:35 p.m. (EDT)

Panel session 2

“Advancing the security alliance on the peninsula and across the Indo-Pacific”

Mark Lambert
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Korea and Japan
US Department of State

Sang Hyun Lee
Sejong Institute

The Hon. Mark Lippert
Senior Advisor, Korea Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Former US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea

Miyeon Oh
Director and Senior Fellow, Asia Security Initiative,
Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

The Hon. James B. Steinberg
Incoming Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Former US Deputy Secretary of State

H.E. Young-kwan Yoon
Professor Emeritus, Seoul National University;
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Republic of Korea

2:35 – 2:45 p.m. (EDT)

Closing remarks

Miyeon Oh
Director and Senior Fellow, Asia Security Initiative,
Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security,
Atlantic Council

Indo-Pacific Security Initiative

The Indo-Pacific Security Initiative works with US, allied, and partner governments and other key stakeholders to shape strategies and policies to mitigate the most important rising security challenges facing the region, including China’s growing threat to the international order and North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear weapons advancements. IPSI also addresses opportunities for cooperation in the region, such as transforming regional security architectures, harnessing emerging technologies, and developing new mechanisms for deterrence and defense cooperation.