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Nuclear deterrence by day, noraebang by night. This head of state does both

President Joe Biden reacts as South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol sings the song "American Pie" in the State Dining Room of the White House on Wednesday.
Susan Walsh
President Joe Biden reacts as South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol sings the song "American Pie" in the State Dining Room of the White House on Wednesday.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol treated President Joe Biden and fellow dinner guests to a rendition of Don McLean's "American Pie" at the White House Wednesday night.

It was the nightcap to a packed day for the two heads of state, who earlier announced their Washington Declaration on nuclear deterrence and signaled strengthening economic ties.

But at home, Yoon faces criticism for pushing anti-feminist legislation and growing the relationship between South Korea and Japan.

Who is he? Yoon Suk Yeol, 62, is the President of South Korea. He began his five-year term last May.

  • Yoon defeated Democratic candidate Lee Jae-myung as a political newcomer, winning by a margin of less than 1%.
  • A member of the right-wing People Power Party, Yoon ran on a platform of deregulating the economy and restoring unity in the country. He also appealed to anti-feminist voters, particularly young men, by vowing to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family during his campaign.
  • Over the last year, Yoon has deepened the relationship between South Korea and the United States, which seeks in South Korea a partner against economic competition with China and an ally amid tensions over Taiwan.
  • He's also, apparently, a decent singer. For a brief moment, the White House became a noraebang, which means karaoke spot in Korean — the phrase literally translates to "song room." Here's his full performance from the reception dinner Wednesday night:
  • What's the big deal? Yoon is on a six-day tour of the United States (no, not for a cappella). His trip marks the first time a South Korean head of state has visited the U.S. in 12 years, and comes at a time of rising nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula.

  • Biden said in a joint press conference with Yoon on Wednesday that a nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies, which includes South Korea, would mean the "end of whatever regime" at fault.
  • Yoon has also met with members of the private sector, including Tesla boss Elon Musk, as South Korea seeks deeper investments in semiconductors, batteries and electric vehicles. Korean Yonhap News Agency reported that during a meeting Wednesday, Yoon asked Musk to invest in South Korea and consider it a candidate for the company's next gigafactory.
  • Yoon Suk Yeol during a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
    Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images
    Bloomberg via Getty Images
    Yoon Suk Yeol during a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.

    What are people saying? Yoon addressed a joint session of Congress on Thursday, touting the deep relationship between the U.S. and South Korea that began 70 years ago. He also dropped several cultural references in speech, which he delivered in English.

  • "Culture is helping to further deepen our understanding and friendship. Nationality and language differences are no longer barriers," Yoon said, mentioning the Oscars success of films Parasite and Minari, and mentioning K-Pop groups BTS and Black Pink. "BTS beat me to the White House, but I beat them to Capitol Hill," he quipped.
  • But at home, the South Korean president has been experiencing lower levels of support for championing a closer diplomatic relationship with Japan despite its colonial, imperialist past.
  • So, what now?

  • Yoon has also scheduled meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Yoon is expected to visit Harvard University and MIT on Friday before leaving for Seoul on Saturday.
  • Learn more:

  • Last year, Yoon unified the country's age-counting system, which he promised to do during his campaign. Most South Koreans will get a year or two younger this June
  • Biden says that a nuclear attack from North Korea would mean 'the end' of its regime
  • South Korea has the world's lowest fertility rate, a struggle with lessons for us all
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Mary Yang
    Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.