Moon must keep Biden firmly focused on North Korea

Vaccines are the big issue at the US-South Korea summit, but Moon Jae-in must cultivate a personal rapport with Joe Biden to keep the peace with North Korea.

Expert comment Published 21 May 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 3 minute READ

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Former Korea Foundation Korea Fellow and Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme

President Moon Jae-in’s five-day visit to Washington is a vital opportunity to offset his dwindling domestic popularity with just over 30 per cent of South Koreans supporting the beleaguered president, compensate for his lame-duck status in the final year of his presidency, re-energize diplomacy with North Korea, and find a solution for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic at home.

For Moon, the key strategic priority remains North Korea and he is keen to persuade Biden to devote more attention to promoting the North’s denuclearization

South Korea’s health concerns are likely to be highest on the agenda for the summit meeting with Joe Biden as Seoul pushes for a ‘vaccine swap’ agreement that will boost South Korean access to critical vaccine supplies from the US, and a possible domestic licensing production deal enabling it to accelerate vaccination roll-out-rates at home.

But winning US health cooperation requires Moon to offer something substantial in return, potentially a commitment on the part of South Korean semiconductor firms – several CEOs are joining Moon on his visit – to invest in production facilities of semiconductors or electric vehicle batteries in the US to diversify supply-chain dependency away from East Asia and the China market.

Reinforcing bilateral ties

South Korean companies such as Samsung are reportedly exploring potentially as much as $35 billion-worth of investment in the US market – and any such commitment during Moon’s visit would represent a symbolically and practically powerful reinforcement of bilateral ties as well as a major boost to Biden’s own domestic agenda.

Vaccine collaboration also materially enhances US-South Korea international collaboration, potentially as an adjunct to the newly reinvigorated Quad initiative between the US, Japan, India, and Australia. Seoul remains resistant to any formal membership of the Quad for fear of jeopardizing its relations with China – a partner valuable not only because of its trade and investment importance but also its strategic and political weight, especially in finding a solution to the North Korea crisis.

But a reference in the joint communique to ‘Quad-plus’ flexibility over vaccines would be consistent with the Biden administration’s focus on alliance reinvigoration while avoiding a narrow military-focused approach to the Quad, or the risk of a zero-sum exclusively conflict driven preoccupation with China.

Prior to Moon’s arrival the White House has stressed the ‘ironclad’ nature of the alliance, and the first face-to-face meeting between Biden and Moon is only the second direct meeting with a foreign leader by the new US president - following April’s summit with Japanese prime minister Suga Yoshihide – clear confirmation of the importance the White House places on its ties with South Korea.

Remembering past shared sacrifices is a key element of this relationship as Moon will participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial and attend an event honouring an elderly US Korean war veteran. But enhancement of trilateral cooperation between the US, South Korea, and Japan is also important as the Biden administration has been keen to foster renewed dialogue between senior national security and intelligence officials from the three countries.

A formal reference in the joint communique or press conference between Biden and Moon to improved trilateral cooperation, or even more ambitiously an allusion to wider common security interests – for example, over Taiwan as was the case in the recent Biden-Suga summit – would constitute a major step forward in declaratory policy and help minimize some of the historical and emotional tensions which recently complicated relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

Seoul is likely to be pushing to ensure any bilateral reference to values and human rights concerns be ringfenced within the broader remit of alliance collaboration

For Moon, the key strategic priority remains North Korea and he is keen to persuade Biden to devote more attention to promoting the North’s denuclearization, taking advantage of the US administration’s recently completed internal North Korean policy review. This calls for a ‘phased’ basis for talks with the North and a ‘calibrated, practical’ approach, eschewing both the ‘grand bargain’ of the Trump administration and detached posture of ‘strategic patience’ associated with the Obama administration.

Straddling these two sharply divergent initiatives, the Biden administration has, judging from recent statements by Kurt Campbell, made it clear it will build on the June 2018 Singapore agreement between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In its commitment to twin goals of peninsular-wide denuclearization and lasting peace, the Singapore agreement echoes the Moon administration’s interest in creating a new ‘peace regime’ between the two Koreas and their respective adversaries, past and present.

Tangible progress and a leader’s legacy

But it remains unclear what would count as a clear deliverable that would signal tangible progress towards not only the realization of the Singapore goals but also in a manner which bolsters Moon’s leadership legacy beyond the end of his presidential tenure.

Reports suggest the Biden administration is making mid-level overtures to Pyongyang but these appear unreciprocated for now. But a declaration hinting at humanitarian or COVID-related assistance to the North, or concrete steps to pave the way to sanctions relief – for example, in return for initial concessions from the North on their intermediate or long-range ballistic missiles – might offer one way forward.

Seoul is likely to be pushing to ensure any bilateral reference to values and human rights concerns be ringfenced within the broader remit of alliance collaboration, and not directly tagged to North Korea for fear of provoking a backlash from the North.

Given the complex, fraught, and sometimes erratic nature of negotiations with the North, President Moon would be wise to focus his political capital on cultivating a strong personal rapport with President Biden to allow top-level government channels between Seoul and Washington to remain open and active for the remainder of his tenure, and to ensure the US president’s attention, potentially distracted by events in the Middle East or at home, remains firmly fixed on the North Korean problem.