WASHINGTON (AP) — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol urged ever more strengthening of the U.S.-led security alliance against nuclear-armed North Korea on Thursday, drawing cheers from Congress as he saluted the “great American heroes” who helped preserve his country's democracy in the Korean War.
Democratic and Republicans lawmakers rose to their feet again and again to applaud during Yoon's address to a joint meeting of the House and Senate, in a speech that stressed security cooperation at a time of increased tension with both North Korea and China. Yoon also cited U.S.-Korean high-tech trade ties creating thousands of jobs in the United States.
Yoon praised the U.S.-South Korea security partnership since the Korean War seven decades ago as “the linchpin safeguarding our freedom, peace and prosperity.”
Lawmakers roared with approval when the South Korean leader closed with, “God bless our alliance.” They flocked to him afterward on the House floor, pressing him to sign their written copies of his address.
Yoon's visit to Washington has focused on efforts by both countries and other allies in the Indo-Pacific to make their forces stronger, more nimble, better positioned and more resilient in the event of any conflict in the region.
On Wednesday, Yoon and President Joe Biden announced an agreement for intensified nuclear deterrence to counter any North Korean threat. Biden issued a blunt warning that a nuclear attack would “result in the end of whatever regime” took such action.
North Korea over the past year has carried out a record number of ballistic missile launches, demonstrating its ability to strike targets near and far.
The U.S.-South Korean deterrence effort announced this week calls for periodically docking U.S. nuclear-armed submarines in South Korea for the first time in decades and bolstering training between the two countries.
The Biden administration's aim in improving the allies' military readiness in the region is not just to deter North Korea but to discourage and defend against any threats from China, which is also a growing security concern. That concern focuses at present on any possible move against the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.
Still, China is an important market for South Korea’s semiconductors and other advanced technology. Yoon’s remarks, while singling out North Korea as a threat to democracy and peace in his region, made no direct mention of China.
Also from the Indo-Pacific, next week Biden will host Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for Oval Office talks.
Yoon paid tribute Thursday to the nearly 40,000 American troops who died helping South Korea's democratic government fight back an attempted takeover by the communist north in the 1950s.
“Korea will never forget the great American heroes who fought with us to defend freedom,” he said.
He singled out the granddaughter of one such Korean veteran, Col. William Weber. Dayne Weber stood and waved from the House Gallery in response, placing her hand over her heart as lawmakers applauded.
Col. Weber lost an arm and leg in 1951 defending Wonju, which is roughly 50 miles east of Seoul. He died last year, after successfully advocating for completion of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Yoon, who charmed a White House state dinner the evening before by singing several stanzas of the 1970s pop song “American Pie,” also pointed to economic and cultural bonds forged between the two countries since the war.
Those include a White House visit last year by a Korean pop group with an adoring global following.
“BTS beat me to the White House — but I beat them to Capitol Hill!” Yoon exclaimed.
On trade, South Korea is concerned about its economy suffering collateral damage as the U.S. tries to wean its supply chains from dependence on Chinese imports, and considers additional sanctions if Beijing increases support for Russia after President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
Individual lawmakers stood, smiled and applauded when Yoon referenced Korean companies with operations in their home states. Rep Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, received high-fives from his colleagues when Yoon mentioned a Samsung semiconductor plant in Austin.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met with Yoon at the Capitol before the joint meeting of Congress. McCarthy pointed out features in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall as they walked to a meeting with other congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Yoon's address marked roughly the 120th time that the House and Senate have met jointly to hear from a foreign leader. It's a tradition that congressional researchers say dates back to 1874, starting with King Kalakaua of Hawaii, which was then a sovereign kingdom and not a state.
Lawmakers extend the invitations as an honor to allies. Yoon's speech comes just weeks after the leaks of highly classified documents that have complicated relations with allies, including South Korea.
The papers, viewed by The Associated Press, describe internal deliberations in which South Korea’s National Security Council “grappled” with the U.S. in early March over an American request to provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine.
The leaked documents, which cited a signals intelligence report, were a political embarrassment at home and abroad for Yoon and other allies cited in the leaks.