South Korean President Nancy Pelosi did not meet because of her stay

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SEOUL — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan on her closely watched tour this week — but not the South Korean president. Official reason: He stayed.

Shortly before Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived late Wednesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol was in attendance. A theater performance in Seoul and He mingled with the cast over dinner and drinks. On Thursday, when Pelosi met with senior South Korean lawmakers, the photos went viral on social media.

Yoon’s decision to downplay accusations that South Korea’s presidential office shunned a meeting with Pelosi in an effort to appease China, leading to the escalating rivalry between South Korea’s largest trading partner and its biggest defense ally, the United States.

South Korea’s political newcomer, who won the presidency by the narrowest margin, is struggling with approval ratings within three months of taking office. He has vowed to make his country “Global Prominence” and a geopolitical power.

But her apparent absence from the world stage has fueled critics, who have accused the conservative South Korean president of deliberately ignoring Pelosi because of concerns about retaliation from Beijing. His controversial visit to Taiwan has heightened tensions between the self-ruled island and Beijing.

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Yoon’s office said she canceled her summer travel plans and chose to stay in Seoul to plan for future political activities and rest at home.

Yoon’s spokeswoman, Choi Young-bum, said the president’s summer vacation was scheduled before Pelosi’s trip to Asia, and that Yoon had attended the theater performance before Pelosi’s flight. According to Choi, Yoon said he was not available to meet with Pelosi, who had flown to South Korea that evening.

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“I’ve had questions about whether the president avoided meeting the House speaker because he was wary of China,” Choi said. “All these matters are decided with full consideration of the national interest of our country.”

He dismissed a reporter’s question that Yun’s unavailability represented a shift in Seoul’s alignment amid the US-China rivalry, calling the question “exaggeration.”

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Instead of meeting in person, the South Korean president and Pelosi spoke by phone late Thursday about strengthening the bilateral alliance and cooperation on regional security issues, according to a readout from Yun’s office.

Yoon, who took office in May, pledged to “rebuild” the US-South Korean alliance, which she said had deteriorated under outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in. The Moon administration sought to work with North Korea’s allies, particularly China, to help broker a peace deal with Pyongyang.

Although Yun has promised a strong political stance in Beijing, South Korea is still treading a fine line. South Korea’s right-leaning Chosun Ilbo newspaper published an editorial titled “Yoon’s Avoidance of Pelosi Meeting May Send Wrong Signals to US, China.” The magazine warned the South Korean government that a “submissive attitude” toward China could alter geopolitical relations.

Pelosi plans to travel to Japan later Thursday after visiting the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. In their phone conversation, his presidential office said Yun’s visit to his border region was “a sign of strong deterrence against North Korea.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to meet with Pelosi on the final stop of his trip on Friday.

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