Previewing the Upcoming Summit between Biden and Moon
Navy Captain Sukjoon Yoon
The Korea Institute for Military Affairs
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden will meet on May 21, 2021 in Washington. This will only be Biden’s second summit of his presidency, following a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide in April. Biden’s decision to prioritize these two allies shows the importance he affords the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, and he presumably regards South Korea as a weak link in US attempts to deal with China. From a US perspective, during his four years as president Moon has been too friendly toward North Korea and China, and Biden will be looking to change that.
Biden is hoping that he can persuade Moon to formally engage with the Quadrilateral Security Dialog (Quad). This grouping, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, has recently been revivified. In a 2021 joint statement, "The Spirit of the Quad," members described "a shared vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific," and a "rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas." Of course, from China’s perspective Quad is an attempt at containment, and if South Korea were to join this would signal a major shift in its foreign policy. The US would also like this Quad Plus to include ASEAN, or at least some members of ASEAN.
The Quad issue is one aspect of the broader question of confronting China, and Moon and Biden will also discuss their contrasting approaches to dealing with North Korea, the parlous state of relations between Japan and South Korea, and how to improve the global supply chain (specifically regarding computer chips) by closer cooperation between the US and South Korea.
Moon and Biden are looking for very different results from the upcoming summit: Moon will try to get Biden to be more flexible on North Korea, whereas Biden is mostly concerned with global security issues: Quad Plus, climate change, and COVID-19 vaccine distribution. On North Korea, Biden argues that it continues to violate UN resolutions and so sanctions cannot be relaxed, but Moon wants to salvage something from the Singapore summit between then President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018, believing that negotiations with North Korea can still make progress. Moon’s position is weak, however, since he is facing domestic political problems and has only one year left: Biden can afford to wait, and a new president from the People Power Party would likely suit him better.
The new Biden administration’s foreign policy is becoming clearer, and it appears that North Korean nuclear issues are not considered a high priority. The North Korean policy review, announced on April 30, is in some ways a compromise between the US and South Korean approaches, but looks to be mostly intended for domestic consumption, with the primary emphasis on distinguishing Biden’s policy from the failures of previous administrations. According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki: "Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience." Biden will follow a phased and realistic approach toward North Korea, employing “diplomacy and firm deterrence,” eschewing the kind of grandstanding top-down approach of Trump, but respecting the Trump-Kim Singapore agreement. This should be acceptable to Moon, and even to Kim, though the North Korean state news agency said that “recent comments from Washington are proof of a hostile policy that requires a corresponding response from Pyongyang.”
The upcoming summit is critically important for Moon. During the Trump administration he was able to play a mediating role between the US and North Korea, so will this still be useful for Biden? And some of Moon’s domestic policies may cause him difficulties in Washington: he has banned conservative civic groups from sending propaganda leaflets by balloon to North Korea, delayed regular military exercises between the US and South Korea, and passed legislation which (at least to US eyes) favors the North Korean regime.
That Biden is less than pleased with Moon’s policy positions, both foreign and domestic, can be seen from the US response to South Korean suggestions that surplus COVID-19 vaccines might be made available to South Korea, which is suffering a vaccine shortage and a lack-luster rollout so far. Psaki referred to vaccine cooperation among Quad members, without mentioning the South Korean request. This implied linkage has put further pressure upon Moon, and is perhaps connected with recent THAAD developments. Moon has allowed USFK to replace old and poor facilities at the THAAD Seongju base, and, it seems, to upgrade the THAAD in three phases, to be completed by end of this year. The Seongju THAAD will be integrated with PAC-2/3 missiles, and also linked with other THAAD systems deployed in Japan and Guam. Operation authority will be transferred from the USFK Commander to the US Missile Defense Agency.
These changes represent a notable concession by Moon to US concerns about China, since South Korea suffered extensive economic retribution from China when THAAD was first deployed on Korean soil in 2017. Moon is thus demonstrating to the Biden administration not only his commitment to the US-ROK alliance, but also his willingness to cooperate, at least to some extent, with the US resistance to Chinese military and political expansionism.
On April 30 the top uniformed officers of South Korea, the United States and Japan held talks in Hawaii. South Korea's JCS Chairman Gen. Won In-choul, Gen. Mark Milley of the US, and Gen. Koji Yamazaki of Japan vowed to strengthen their trilateral cooperation amid concerns over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Various regional security issues were discussed at this annual Trilateral Chiefs of Defense (Tri-CHOD) meeting, including how to extend their security cooperation to encompass multilateral arrangements such as Quad. This message accords with Biden’s recent speech to the US Congress, marking his first 100 days in office, in which he spoke of “working closely with our allies to address the threats posed ... through diplomacy as well as stern deterrence.”
On May 3, at the G7 foreign ministers meeting, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with South Korea’s Chung Eui-yong, and separately with Japan’s Toshimitsu Motegi. It was noteworthy that the joint statement from the US-South Korea meeting did not mention North Korea, which surely indicates that they failed to reach agreement on North Korean issues. On this basis a similar outcome might be expected from the upcoming bilateral summit on May 21, with some bland statement of shared commitment. Moon is hoping that North Korea will take this opportunity to more actively demonstrate its willingness to denuclearize, but it is far more likely that North Korea will embarrass Moon by conducting another SLBM test, since Kim would prefer to negotiate directly with Biden without the involvement of South Korea.
In conclusion, there are broad and deep differences between Moon and Biden, and there is no chance of Moon persuading Biden to follow in Trump's footsteps. But Biden may offer some kind of promise to do his best to reengage with North Korea in exchange for Moon expressing his willingness to work more closely with Quad in a wider Quad Plus framework. As for the strategic competition between the US and China, Moon will argue for reducing tensions, lest North Korea take advantage of the situation to the detriment of the US and South Korea. Biden will not heed his plea, however, at least before the China Task Force reports in late June, after which there may well be significant changes in US policy toward China. Of course Biden’s China policy is about far more than North Korea, encompassing global security concerns, so Moon can also expect pressure for South Korea to reconcile with Japan. Moon was surely naive to expect great things from Trump in resolving North Korean issues, and neither can he expect much from Biden, who is likely a transitional president, given his age.
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