South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol discussed growing nuclear threats from North Korea at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Friday evening, capping off his six-day visit to the United States.
The event, moderated by former Harvard Kennedy School Dean and professor emeritus Joseph S. Nye Jr., came two days after President Joe Biden and Yoon announced the “Washington Declaration” — a move aimed to strengthen ties between the U.S. and South Korea in the face of North Korea’s recent nuclear tests.
The declaration gives South Korea a strategic role in a potential American nuclear strategy against North Korea, in exchange for South Korea not acquiring its own nuclear arsenal.
“President Biden and I adopted a joint statement on the vision of an alliance and action toward the future,” Yoon said through a translator. “The alliance is not a contract of convenience that comes and goes based on interests. But it is a valued alliance that is based on the universal value of freedom and democracy.”
The declaration has sparked criticism from some government officials in South Korea who argue the agreement will harm the country’s security interests.
“There is some opinion in our Korean society that due to increasing nuclear threats posed by North Korea, that we need to acquire our own nuclear weapons,” Yoon said.
Yoon defended his decision to sign on to the declaration during the forum, arguing South Korea would run contrary to its values if it decided to develop its own nuclear weapons.
“I believe those opinions saying we need to have our own nuclear arsenal are not considering all these factors,” he added.
Prior to the event, protesters gathered at the entrance to John F. Kennedy Memorial Park — located right outside the forum’s venue — holding signs that read “Traitor Yoon,” “U.S. Military Puppet,” and “No To War! Yes To Peace!” among other messages.
The protest, which lasted throughout the forum until Yoon left the HKS campus, was organized by the New England Korea Peace Campaign, Boston Candlelight Action Committee, and Massachusetts Peace Action.
Seung Hee Jeon, co-chair of the Korean Peace Campaign and associate professor at Boston College, said in an interview that the group organized the protest to “urge U.S. government and Biden administration to stop supporting and encouraging this extremely unpopular and extremely authoritarian Yoon government.”
“Yoon’s administration, since its inauguration about a year ago, has been undermining decades of efforts by the people of South Korea to create more stable democracy, lasting peace, and universal justice,” Jeon said.
“The administration has been expanding dangerous and provocative U.S.-South Korea military exercises, heightening tensions with North Korea, rolling back workers rights, threatening to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality, and ruthlessly suppressing the freedom of the press,” she added.
A spokesperson for the South Korean president, Sehee An, did not respond to a request for comment.
The agreement between Biden and Yoon drew complaints from China, which expressed “strong dissatisfaction” over the agreement’s language surrounding stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Asked by Nye whether the declaration will worsen tensions between the two nations, Yoon maintained the agreement was designed to counter nuclear threats from North Korea.
“When it comes to a relationship with China, everything is based on mutual respect and we pursue mutual interests and co-prosperity,” he said. “The Washington Declaration that you just mentioned has to do with intensifying nuclear threats coming from North Korea.”
“I think this kind of choice that we made under the Washington Declaration is an inevitable one on our part,” Yoon added.