In May 2021, South Korea’s President paid a scheduled visit to the United State where he met with the recently elected US leader. The trip took place at a time when a number of internal political issues plague the ROK and the confrontation between the US and PRC continues.
Prior to the visit, South Korean journalists and experts outlined quite a number of points that were supposed to be discussed by the two Presidents. Surprisingly, a key item on their agenda was not North Korea but USA’s potential aid with the vaccination drive in the ROK or preferably, a close collaboration in this area. After all, according to Lee Ho-seung, President Moon Jae-in’s Chief of Staff for policy, the United States “possesses original technologies and materials for vaccines, while South Korea has the world’s No. 2 biological manufacturing capability”. Hence, the ROK could “become a global hub for vaccine production through the partnership with the US,” and such a development might have a long-lasting impact on its economy, especially if COVID-19 became as common of an ailment as the flu. Despite a fairly robust vaccination drive in the ROK by international standards, some South Koreans have been critical of the relatively slow roll out as the country faces uncertainties in securing vaccines from the United States on site and on time. In the current climate, at the beginning of May, Hwang Kyo-ahn, former leader of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, visited Washington DC in order to meet with “key officials in the Biden administration and executives of global pharmaceutical companies” and to “seek vaccine cooperation”.
The second point on the agenda was economic cooperation between the two nations. Hence, it is not surprising that major business leaders were to accompany Moon Jae-in on the trip. SK Group Chairman and Chief of the Korea Chamber of Commerce Chey Tae-won; Vice Chairman of Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. Kim Ki-nam, and LG Energy Solution CEO Kim Jong-hyun were to be among the President’s entourage. At this point, it is important to highlight how much South Korea’s position has changed in response to the direction taken by USA’s leadership. In 2019, Moon Jae-in ordered immediate measures to raise the domestic semiconductor industry’s competitiveness in the non-memory field in order to reduce the country’s overreliance on the memory chip market. Perhaps, at the time, the President was also trying to reign in South Korea’s most powerful conglomerates such as Samsung. But once US leader Joe Biden decided to address the global chip shortage, Moon Jae-in pledged support for the local semiconductor sector and called it a “core national strategic industry”.
The third item on the agenda was indeed the DPRK. Some believed that Moon Jae-in would try to convince his US counterpart to use the North Korea-US agreement signed in Singapore in 2018 as a basis for dialogue with Pyongyang. And it was entirely possible that the US leadership would be willing to go along with such a proposal, since the first three points of the Singapore joint statement lack specifics and are open to interpretation, while the fourth point, related to “recovering POW/MIA remains” and repatriating those already identified, has been mostly settled.
In addition, US politicians and foreign policy experts, such as Kurt Campbell, have expressed their support for the 2018 agreement. It has also been reported that Moon Jae-in aims to reach an irreversible peace on the Korean Peninsula, and it would have been great if, in addition to building on USA’s 2018 summit agreement with North Korea, he was able to convince Joe Biden to strive even higher.
On May 17, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied there was any truth to claims published by the Maeil Business Newspaper asserting that the ROK government “promised to improve relations with Japan in exchange for the United States committing itself to a Trump-era summit deal with North Korea”. “The report is not only untrue but is a malicious report,” the ministry added. One could even say that the Japan–South Korea relationship was the fourth point on the agenda. After all, Joe Biden is seeking to restore this alliance and probably believes that all major points of concern between the two neighboring nations were settled by agreements they signed in 1965 and 2015.
Another issue closely connected to the fourth item is the possibility of ROK participating in a regional alliance called QUAD Plus. In the author’s opinion, despite South Korea’s willingness to pursue an independent foreign policy, the nation may have no choice by to join this organization but, hopefully, in exchange for some guarantees. Hence, it would not be surprising if business leaders from the ROK were keen to discuss investment and business opportunities in the United States. After all, China is bound to retaliate once South Korea joins QUAD Plus by imposing formal and informal sanctions against the latter that are either similar or even greater in severity than those instituted in response to the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) systems on the Korean Peninsula. And such an outcome would have a negative effect on ROK economy.
It was also reported that Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden would possibly discuss the issue of human rights in relation to the DPRK.
As per usual, before ROK President’s visit to the United States, a substantial number of articles were published in South Korea, with advice on his conduct at the meeting. And each of these reports essentially reflected its author’s point of view. More conservative journalists encouraged the leader to follow a pro-US course, improve joint capabilities of the two nations, join QUAD Plus and not believe the DPRK leadership. Left-wing politicians like Moon Jae-in, on the other hand, proposed focusing on the battle against the Coronavirus, protection of the environment, science and technology exchange programs, etc. Even reports in conservative newspapers predicted that the meeting would be dedicated to vaccines, memory chips and North Korea. After all, the ongoing confrontation between the United States and the PRC, plus the pandemic were bound to have an effect on the agenda.
There was even an editorial in the Korea Herald that talked about “the possibility of North Korea mounting military provocations” in response to the South Korea-US summit.
In the author’s opinion, there were more formal and ceremonial events than opportunities for discussion in the plan for Moon Jae-in’s visit to the United States.
The US-South Korea summit took place on May 21, 2021. And before any talks, the ROK President attended a ceremony where Joe Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency to retired, 94-year-old Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr. for his “conspicuous gallantry in the Korean War”. The fact that it was the first time a foreign leader had ever participated in an award of the Medal of Honor highlighted USA’s commitment to its alliance with South Korea. Before the summit with Joe Biden, Moon Jae-in met with Vice President Kamala Harris who said “it was more important than ever that the United States and the Republic of Korea” worked closely together. Following the meetings with US leader, the South Korean President stated that the ROK and the United States had closely coordinated with each other over the course of the Biden administration’s DPRK policy review. Still, based on reports about the most recent and previous visits of South Korean leaders to the US, the author has got the impression that the ROK side is usually informed about what is expected of it and its own aims are rarely taken into account. The approach towards North Korea chosen by the Biden administration leaves it with quite a bit of room for maneuver. It would appear that the US President and his team have no intention of appeasing the DPRK leadership as Donald Trump did or pursuing Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience”. Joe Biden also talked about the importance of the 70-year alliance with the Republic of Korea not only to the United States, but also “the future of the Indo-Pacific region” and the world.
After a fairly long discussion between Moon Jae-in and the US leader, there was a press conference. A full joint statement was issued at the end of the bilateral summit. And it is unclear to the author whether it had been prepared before or after the meeting. After all, Joe Biden does not appear to be in favor of a top-down approach to management unlike Donald Trump. Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden “held 171 minutes of one-on-one, small group and expanded summit meetings”. Overall, the South Korean leader spent five hours and 40 minutes at the White House. It has been reported that the meetings lasted about “one hour longer than scheduled”.
All in all, an entire day was dedicated to the summit. There were, of course, a few hiccups during the visit. For instance, during the Medal of Honor award ceremony, President Joe Biden referred to Moon Jae-in as Prime Minister but while addressing him directly, the US leader used the correct title.
Some South Korean media outlets also paid attention to other aspects of the visit that indicated the ROK President received a warmer welcome than Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga during his trip to the United States the previous month. For example, Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden met without wearing masks, which was not the case with the Japanese leader. In addition, the lunch between the two Presidents lasted “about 17 minutes longer than the one between Biden and Suga”. President Moon Jae-in’s visit to the US was seemingly beneficial for both nations. In the author’s opinion, it also showed that some detractors who believe the South Korean President has anti-American views and has sold out to China could be wrong.
It is now time to focus on what the ROK President achieved during the talks with his US counterpart and what he possibly gave up in return. On his arrival back in the ROK, Moon Jae-in said the results from his first summit with US leader were better than expected.
Aid with vaccines. The two Presidents did reach an agreement on the vaccine issue. Still, it is worth noting that during a May 20 press briefing, Jen Psaki stated that the United States was planning to share its supply with the world. An important achievement was the promise by Joe Biden to vaccinate all 550,000 Korean soldiers, sailors and airmen who worked “in close contact with American forces in Korea”. The two leaders also agreed “to establish a comprehensive” KORUS Global Vaccine Partnership in order to boost world-wide vaccine supply. In addition, on May 22, Moderna and Samsung Biologics announced an agreement for fill-finish manufacturing of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in the ROK. The deal was signed in the presence of President Moon Jae-in. Other locally produced vaccines include Sputnik V and those from AstraZeneca and Novavax.
Considering the population of ROK is currently over 51 million, the South Korean leader appears to have dealt with the vaccine supply issue fairly successfully so far.
In the author’s opinion, an even more impressive achievement was the fact that the two leaders agreed “to work together to strengthen and reform the World Health Organization” (WHO). After all, the WHO has been criticized for being overly influenced by China.
Economic cooperation. After the meeting with Moon Jae-in, President Joe Biden announced that four leading South Korean companies were to make a new investment of more than $35 billion in the US economy, including in the manufacture of electric vehicles (EVs) and EV batteries. Samsung Electronics pledged to invest $17 billion, LG Energy Solution and SK Innovation – $14 billion, Hyundai Motor Group – $7.4 billion, and SK hynix – $1 billion.
The two sides agreed “to cooperate to increase resiliency” of their supply chains, “including in priority sectors such as semiconductors, eco-friendly EV batteries, strategic and critical materials, and pharmaceuticals”. The Presidents also said they were ready to collaborate “closely on the reform of the WTO” (the World Trade Organization).
Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden expressed their support for “leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing in both countries through the promotion of increased mutual investments as well as research and development cooperation”. The two committed “to work together to develop a future-oriented partnership by leading innovation in the areas of clean energy, such as next generation batteries; hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, and in the emerging technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, next generation communications networks (6G)” as well as open-RAN, quantum and bio-technologies.
Curiously, Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in agreed to “develop cooperation in overseas nuclear markets, including joint participation in nuclear power plant projects”. The author believes that it was a concession on the latter’s part. Previously, the ROK leader talked about plans to phase out nuclear-generated power, stop “the construction of new nuclear reactors,” and “step up usage of natural gas and renewable” energy sources.
Overall, one could argue that the South Korean President handled the issue of economic cooperation successfully. Still, it is important to keep in mind that this section of the article concerns preliminary agreements and expressed intentions.
North Korea issue. Statements made regarding it were general in nature. According to the two leaders, the US and ROK shared “a willingness to engage diplomatically with the DPRK to take pragmatic steps” that would reduce tensions and help achieve the “ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.
The author would be remiss not to focus on the wording in the aforementioned phrase. On the one hand, only left-wing politicians in the ROK, and Chinese and Russian officials usually talk about the denuclearization of the entire peninsula. On the other, the phrase “complete denuclearization” was used by Moon Jae-in. The joint statement from the two leaders also called “for the full implementation of relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions by the international community, including the DPRK”. In other words, it has become quite clear what end goal the new US administration wishes to pursue. In addition, President Moon Jae-in welcomed “the conclusion of the United States’ DPRK policy review”, while Joe Biden expressed “his support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement and cooperation”. The two sides also agreed “to work together to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK and commit to” continue providing humanitarian aid to the neediest North Koreans. The US and ROK leaders stated they shared “willingness to help facilitate the reunion of separated families of the two Koreas”.
After the US-South Korea summit, the American President said he might meet with the DPRK leader. His statement caused quite a stir among those present at the press briefing. Still, according to Joe Biden, such a summit would only be possible if Kim Jong-un made a commitment to discuss his nuclear arsenal and if there was a previously negotiated outline as to how the discussion would proceed. In other words, the US President would meet with his DPRK counterpart only if the latter showed and proved his willingness to make concessions.
In their joint statement, the two leaders reaffirmed their common belief that “diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and US-DPRK commitments,” were “essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula”.
According to anonymous sources, Moon Jae-in agreed to have the issue of human rights in the DPRK mentioned in the aforementioned document in exchange for the inclusion of the phrase about “the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement”.
All in all, the author believes that Joe Biden will take a pragmatic approach towards North Korea. The US President appointed Sung Kim as US Special Envoy for the DPRK. The latter is not a war hawk but a career diplomat who was the US Ambassador to South Korea from 2011 to 2014, and the US Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks.
US foreign policy experts and others agreed that the appointment of Sung Kim reflected the commitment of the United States to explore diplomacy and “its readiness for dialogue with North Korea”.
In conclusion, is hard to say whether the two sides actually arrived at full consensus on the DPRK issue but they did show their willingness to work together on it in public.
Relationship between ROK and Japan. During the May 21 briefing, Jen Psaki said the United States and South Korea might look at some aspects of their “relationship with China similarly” and others differently, and that would be a part of the discussion between the two allies. In addition, the Press Secretary stated that the US continued “to promote expanded trilateral US-South Korea-Japan cooperation”.
According to the joint statement issued after the summit, the United States and ROK acknowledged “the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism including the QUAD”. The fundamental importance of US-South Korea-Japan trilateral cooperation was also underscored in it. In the author’s opinion, it would be best to monitor the dynamics of the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo in order to see the effects, if any, of agreements reached in the US.
QUAD and other security-related issues. On May 20, 2021, Jen Psaki told the press that the membership of the QUAD was unlikely to change. After the ROK-US summit, Joe Biden reaffirmed the two nations’ “commitment to a conditions-based transition to wartime operational control”.
In their joint statement, the Presidents said the US-ROK relationship was grounded in shared values, and agreed to work on aligning South Korea’s “New Southern Policy and the United States’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific”. The two nations also reaffirmed their “support for enhanced cooperation with Pacific Island countries” and “for ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN-led regional architecture”. The United States and the ROK acknowledged “the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism, including the QUAD”. In addition, the two sides expressed their commitment “to an inclusive, free and open Indo-Pacific”, and emphasized “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. They also pledged “to promote human rights and rule of law” both at home and abroad. And although China was not mentioned directly in the joint statement, some of the aforementioned comments certainly concern it. Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden condemned “violence by the Myanmar military and police against civilians”.
According to the South Korean President, the two sides decided to work more closely together to promote “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
The leaders also addressed the issue of climate change. The United States and ROK “committed to making ambitious 2030 targets aligned with the effort to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050”. In addition, the two Presidents agreed to cooperate on women’s rights issues, in the spheres of cybersecurity and space exploration, and to address “the root causes of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries to the United States”.
Surprisingly, the agenda for the meeting included a topic that was not previously discussed in numerous reports. In fact, the author believes it to be an issue of crucial importance. After the summit, the two sides announced the termination of Revised Missile Guidelines for South Korea, thus allowing this nation to develop ballistic missiles with a range of up to 800 km. The change was presented in the context of USA’s recognition of “ROK’s global role in promoting nonproliferation efforts”.
The author would prefer to address this topic in a separate article. After all, the decision is not just a concession to South Korea in exchange for its cooperation, but a means of enhancing the nation’s missile capabilities. The response of DPRK leadership to the aforementioned move could further cool inter-Korean relations and increase tensions on the Peninsula.
On his return to the ROK, Moon Jae-in wrote on his social messaging accounts that the outcome of the talks in the United States “could not have been better”. He said that the US leadership “tried to understand South Korea’s position on the pending issues,” which was reflected in the summit agreement. The President called the “US decision to provide South Korea with Coronavirus vaccines, plus a bilateral vaccine partnership” a surprise gift. Another was the announcement made by Joe Biden that Sung Kim would be appointed as US Special Envoy on North Korea. According to Moon Jae-in, choosing him for this role sent a message to Pyongyang that the United States was ready for dialogue and discussions without an interpreter.
From the author’s point of view, the US-ROK summit clearly demonstrated that South Korea was USA’s truly close ally. It would appear that there are no serious disagreements between the two sides. And the joint statement issued at the end of the meeting is a direct message to other nations of the region. It is not surprising that a number of reporters referred to the visit as pivotal, with South Korea seemingly choosing the US side in the confrontation between the United States and China.
And yet ROK officials, such as South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chung Eui-yong, are not ready to openly admit this. In the past, he said that it was not in ROK’s interests to choose between Washington and Beijing. Still, it is quite clear to the author that the Biden administration was trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the PRC, and thus needed a group of allies who could make valuable contributions to the US economy and secure supplies of goods and resources essential for crucial sectors in order to reduce US dependence on China.
So how did each side benefit from the summit? Moon Jae-in reached an agreement on vaccine supply. He can also now tell his domestic audience that his populist policies had a certain impact on the direction taken by the United States towards the DPRK. The termination of the revised missile guidelines was also a gift, even if a peculiar one, for South Korea. The envisioned economic cooperation between the two countries should also be mutually beneficial, in the author’s opinion.
In turn, Joe Biden, unquestionably, ensured the supply of much needed materials and products for crucial manufacturing sectors within the anti-China alliance. The deals signed were designed to bring the ROK and US closer together, and benefits reaped could cause more problems for China than the possibility of South Korea joining the QUAD Plus. Since the ROK government agreed to make such substantial investments in the US economy, the assumption that South Korea mainly collaborates with the United States on issues of security and with the PRC on the basis of economic considerations could be viewed as inaccurate.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.