South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has been accused of trying to placate China by avoiding Nancy Pelosi, a day after she became the most senior US official to visit Taiwan for a quarter of a century and sparked a furious response from Beijing.
Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, will reportedly speak to Pelosi on the phone but will not meet her in person during her visit to Seoul on Thursday, South Korean media said.
Yoon had reportedly planned a summer holiday well in advance of the US House speaker’s decision to visit the region, which included a controversial stop in Taiwan on Wednesday that drew threats of retaliation from China. The South Korean leader is reportedly in Seoul.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of Chinese territory, on Thursday began four days of “unprecedented” live-fire drills in six locations encircling the island, in a show of force designed to communicate its anger with Washington and Taipei.
It also summoned the US ambassador in Beijing and banned thousands of food imports from Taiwan.
Critics have accused Yoon of avoiding Pelosi to avoid antagonising China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner. The South Korean broadcaster TBS quoted an official at the presidential Blue House as denying that China had been a factor in Yoon’s decision not to meet Pelosi, as his itinerary had been finalised before her visit was announced.
When Pelosi last visited South Korea, in 2015, she met the then president, Park Geun-hye, and the then foreign minister, Yun Byung-se.
Kim Heung-kyu, director of the US-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, told the Korea Times. “Pelosi is the number three politician in the US, and if this were in the past, the president or the foreign minister would have tried to hold talks with her, but I think that this time the government seems to have decided not to excessively politicise the issue and unnecessarily antagonise China.”
Pelosi met the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and is expected to hold talks with the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Friday. Pelosi said on Wednesday that her visit to Taiwan made it “unequivocally clear” that the US would “not abandon” its democratic ally.
In Seoul, she was due to meet her South Korean counterpart, national assembly speaker Kim Jin-pyo and members of the ruling and main opposition parties.
Reports said Pelosi and Kim would issue a joint statement and summarise their discussions on North Korea and regional security, but would not take questions from journalists.
Pelosi is also planning to visit the truce village of Panmunjom, located along the heavily armed border between South and North Korea.
A possible meeting with the South Korean foreign minister, Park Jin, was ruled out after he left for Cambodia early on Wednesday to attend an Asean meeting.
In Tokyo, Pelosi and Kishida are expected to repeat their commitment to US-Japan cooperation in ensuring a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region amid increasing Chinese military activity in the South and East China seas.