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South Korea’s Yoon reminds lawmakers of benefits of US intervention

Address suggests parallels with Ukraine, Taiwan

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol addresses a joint meeting of Congress Thursday.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol addresses a joint meeting of Congress Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

South Korea’s president told Congress on Thursday his country — a onetime beneficiary of U.S. military intervention and significant foreign aid — now stood ready to stand in solidarity with Ukraine and other vulnerable democracies and help them in their hour of need.

As lawmakers, especially Republicans, debate whether the U.S. can afford to provide Ukraine with significant taxpayer largesse — $113 billion in related aid since Russia mounted its full-scale invasion of its smaller neighbor more than a year ago — the president drew unmistakable allusions to the example and rewards accrued from U.S. aid to South Korea decades ago.

So were comparisons to Taiwan, which is facing mounting military threats from its much larger neighbor China.

“When North Korea invaded us in 1950, democracies came running to help us. We fought together and kept our freedom. The rest is history,” President Yoon Suk Yeol said at a joint meeting of Congress that saw the House floor packed and the galleries above it filled with an audience of South Korean, American and foreign dignitaries.

Among those in the audience was Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, Oksana Markarova, who nodded vigorously when Yoon said, “Korea’s experience shows us just how important it is for democracies to uphold solidarity. Korea will stand in solidarity with the free world. We will actively work to safeguard the freedom of the people of Ukraine and support their efforts in reconstruction.”

South Korea has joined the Western coalition imposing sanctions and export controls on Russia as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine and has announced a total of $230 million in humanitarian and economic support, according to the White House. But Seoul has held off providing Ukraine with weapons for fear of antagonizing Russia, which has significant influence with its nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea.

Yoon’s address was warmly received by senators and representatives, who rewarded him with numerous standing ovations, particularly when he spoke of the sacrifices American troops and their families made in the 1950-1953 Korean War to ensure then-impoverished South Korea’s independence.

“In 1950, the Korean Peninsula was on the front line. The Soviet Union helped to rearm North Korea. North Korea’s surprise attack threatened the peace on the Korean Peninsula… At that decisive moment, the U.S. did not look the other way. Korean and American soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder and fought bravely,” Yoon said to a standing ovation.

One of the most consequential national security debates in Washington today is how much military support to offer Taiwan, which the U.S. doesn’t formally recognize as a country but with which it has extensive diplomatic and trade relations. Among the debates in Congress are whether the U.S. should formally pledge to militarily intervene if Taiwan is invaded and whether to force the U.S. defense industry to fulfill Taiwan’s weapons orders before it fills those of other countries.

Supporters of stronger commitments to Taipei have argued it would send an important deterrence signal to Beijing, which they believe underestimates the U.S. public’s willingness to experience hardship, particularly on behalf of distant Taiwan. The counter argument is that it would increase the risks of a direct military confrontation with China if President Xi Jinping speeds a timetable he is assumed to have for launching an invasion.

Yoon on Thursday reminded Americans that they already did that when they came to South Korea’s defense in 1950.

“Sons and daughters of America sacrificed their lives to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met,” he said. “In the Battle of Lake Changjin alone, 4,500 service members lost their lives. Over the course of the war, almost 37,000 U.S. soldiers fell.”

Lawmakers gave Yoon an especially loud standing ovation as he extolled the sacrifices made on his country’s behalf.

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