South Korea president opens US tour with NASA space centre visit

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s six-day visit marks the 70th anniversary of the US-South Korean alliance, forged in 1953.

Seen from a crowd, Kamala Harris and Yoon Suk Yeol lean over from their separate podiums to shake hands
US Vice President Kamala Harris shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has toured a NASA flight centre, as his country and the United States signed a joint statement to increase their collaboration in technology and space exploration.

“I’ve always believed that mankind’s future lies in space,” Yoon said on Tuesday in a speech from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he was joined by US Vice President Kamala Harris.

Yoon underscored his vision for transforming South Korea into “one of the world’s top five leaders in space technology”, with plans to reach the moon for “resource extraction” by 2032 and land astronauts on Mars by 2045.

In her remarks, Harris called the US-South Korean alliance “a linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and around the world”.

She credited the alliance with tackling “some of the most important and pressing issues of our time”, including the two countries’ “collective defence in the face of aggression and provocation”, a seeming reference to North Korea and its recent missile tests.

Harris also addressed a shared commitment to confronting the climate crisis. “Together our nations have built and placed satellites in orbit that can track air pollution in North America and Asia,” she said.

“Today I have also directed the National Space Council, which I lead, to expand this network to ensure that it also covers the southern hemisphere, specifically the continent of Africa and South America. This cannot be a global initiative if any nations around the world are excluded.”

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stand in a row with their hands over their hearts
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (from left), US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden pay their respects at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Yoon’s visit to the space flight centre — one of NASA’s original research hubs — marked the first leg of a six-day US tour, which will include a formal White House visit on Wednesday with his US counterpart, President Joe Biden.

The trip marks the South Korea’s first state visit to Washington, DC, in nearly 12 years and the first state visit from an Indo-Pacific leader during Biden’s term in office.

Yoon’s tour is also timed to the 70th anniversary of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, which established the two countries’ alliance. He spent part of Tuesday visiting the Arlington National Cemetery — a memorial site largely for military personnel — as well as the Korean War Memorial with Biden.

While in the US, Yoon is expected to push for greater economic cooperation with Washington. Before his initial meeting with Biden on Tuesday, he called for the countries’ bond to “leap into a new phase” and “evolve into a supply chain and future-oriented, innovative-technology alliance”.

His trip coincided with several high-profile deals between US and South Korean industries.

On Monday, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos announced his company would invest $2.5bn in South Korean programming after a meeting with Yoon. And on Tuesday, the US carmaker General Motors announced it would partner with Samsung SDI to construct a $3bn electric vehicle battery plant in the US.

Joe Biden arranges a wreath with flowers, before a line of soldiers
US President Joe Biden (centre) joins South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to place a wreath at the Korean War Memorial on April 25 [Leah Millis/Reuters]

In addition to economic ventures, the US has teased “major deliverables” to be announced during the formal visit on Wednesday, including “with respect to the threat” North Korea poses.

“This visit, of course, also comes at a critical moment, as North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday. “The two leaders will have a chance to consult closely on that.”

Sullivan’s statement comes as the US continues to wrestle with the fallout from the release of classified documents online, some of which purport to show the Biden administration spying and putting pressure on South Korea to supply ammunition destined for Ukraine.

Those documents appeared to signal strain between the two allies, though US officials have been quick to affirm that relations with South Korea are “ironclad”.

The US and South Korea are both part of the non-binding NASA Artemis Accords, a multilateral agreement to collaborate on crewed missions to the moon.

The agreement signed on Tuesday at the Goddard space centre is slated to reinforce that commitment, as well as broker collaboration across spaced-based communication, navigation and technology.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies