Asia, Biden transition, New in Lobbying, Regional conflicts, US-China tensions

South Korea hires former lawmakers Royce, Begich amid tensions with US over China, N. Korea

The South Korean Embassy in Washington has hired a bipartisan team of former lawmakers as Seoul engages the Joe Biden administration and the new Congress on a range of lingering policy disputes including trade with China and nuclear talks with North Korea.

Lobbyists on the contract with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck include former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and former Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), both of whom also recently registered on behalf of the government of Egypt. Brownstein was retained effective Jan. 12 for $30,000 per month through June to lobby on “federal government relations services.”

The contract was signed by the managing partner of Brownstein’s Washington bureau, Marc Lampkin, and embassy counselor Wieyoung Ha. Lampkin, a veteran Republican lobbyist, is also registered on the account along with Democratic fundraiser and Brownstein partner Alfred Mottur, policy director Douglas Maguire and senior policy adviser Ari Zimmerman.

Royce has long been close to South Korea and served as co-chairman of the Congressional Korea Caucus but was more hawkish toward Pyongyang than the current government in Seoul during his time in Congress. Begich for his part served in the Senate from 2009 to 2015, while Biden was vice-president.

Brownstein joins an already hefty stable of firms working for the embassy, including Squire Patton Boggs, BGR Government Affairs, Nelson Mullins, Thomas Capitol Partners, Cornerstone Government Affairs, DiNino Associates and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. All told the government of South Korea spent more than $27 million on lobbying and public relations in 2019, the last year for which complete records are available, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The latest lobbying hire comes as the left-wing, dovish government of President Moon Jae-in is eager to improve bilateral ties strained by the Donald Trump administration’s trade war with China and efforts to squeeze Seoul into paying more for the US troop presence in the country, while building on Trump’s overtures to North Korea. Those talks broke down in late 2019 soon after Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who has been dialing up the pressure on Biden with displays of military might.

“The start of the Biden administration provides a new opportunity to start over talks between North Korea and the United States and also between South and North Korea,” Moon said at his new year’s press conference. “The North Korean efforts to expand its nuclear program and acquire more weapons systems are all because we have not succeeded yet in reaching an agreement over denuclearization and establishing peace. These are problems that could all be solved by success in dialogue.”

Neither Brownstein nor the Korean embassy responded to requests for comment.

Scott Snyder, the director of the program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the “main priority” for Seoul “is to convince the Biden administration to engage diplomatically with North Korea.” He said the Moon administration’s initial response to Biden’s election has been one of “initial relief accompanied by anxiety.”

“You can see there is a generalized anxiety within the Moon administration about being potentially perceived as not aligned with the US and a desire to try to cultivate influence to bring the US closer to the South Korean position on some of these issues,” Snyder told Foreign Lobby Report. The US election was followed by a surge of post-election outreach to Washington to “try to activate relationships with the new government,” he said, including a visit by a parliamentary delegation and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha‘s Nov. 10 meeting with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a key Biden ally.

During the presidential campaign Biden criticized Trump’s friendly relationship with North Korea’s Kim, whom he called a “thug.” White House spokesman Jen Psaki elaborated on the new administration’s approach last week, saying the Biden would adopt a “new approach” starting with a “thorough policy review of the state of play in North Korea in close consultation with South Korea, Japan and other allies on ongoing pressure options, and the potential for any future diplomacy.”

By contrast, Snyder said, the South Koreans hope to perpetuate the engagement witnessed under President Trump.

“The way that is seen in South Korea is the priority is on peace and reconciliation as a prerequisite to denuclearization, or as an essential parallel condition for being able to achieve anything on arms control/denuclearization,” he said.

On a more positive note, Biden has made clear his intent to stand by the US military commitment to South Korea after Trump threatened to pull US troops out unless Seoul agreed to pay $5 billion a year to cover the cost of their deployment, more than five times the current contribution.

“As President, I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops,” Biden said in an October contribution to the Yonhap news agency.

The divergence of views on North Korea is also playing out on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have lambasted a new South Korean law passed in December that criminalizes the practice of floating balloons with anti-regime leaflets into North Korea in the name of improving ties with Pyongyang. Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee used to chair, and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, are among the critics.

“Freedom of expression is a core democratic value,” McCaul said in a statement. “A bright future for the Korean Peninsula rests on North Korea becoming more like South Korea — not the other way around.”

Another bone of contention with the US is China, South Korea’s largest trading partner. Korean chipmakers such as Samsung and SK hynix are among the private companies that have stepped up their lobbying since the Trump administration blocked chip sales to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

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Brownstein’s lobbying for South Korea could dovetail with its representation of Chinese technology companies. The firm notably represents semi-conductor company Fujian Jinhua, image sensor maker Omnivision Technologies and tech conglomerate Tencent, owner of the WeChat app that Trump tried to ban in the United States. Royce is registered on the latter two accounts.

South Korea has made clear its reluctance to get dragged into the US rivalry with China.

“It’s clear that in the new international order of the post-corona era, the US-China rivalry will hold a significant place,” South Korean ambassador to the US Lee Soo-hyuck said at a virtual press conference with South Korean reporters in June. “I don’t believe we need to trap ourselves in the self-prophetic mindset that we will end up in a situation where we have to choose between the two.”

Snyder said much will depend on how the Biden administration deals with the growing bipartisan furor over China’s perceived trade violations, national security threats and human rights abuses.

“This is really part of the issue of not being entrapped in a US competition with China,” he said. “South Korea has a lot more nuance to its desired approach, certainly than what we saw in the Trump administration, toward China. And it remains to be seen exactly how much the Biden administration is going to have.”