In Washington, history is repeating itself.
The White House is attempting to navigate a pivot to Asia once more. However, seemingly intractable problems in the Middle East continue to divert attention away from Indo-Pacific issues.
While the world waits to see if a recently announced ceasefire between Israel and Hamas will hold — following the bloodiest conflict between the two sides since 2014 — US President Joe Biden will meet with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in for an important summit that could set the tone for how the longtime allies work together in the coming months.
Moon’s visit will be Biden’s second in-person meeting with a world leader since taking office in January. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the usual flurry of visits that accompany a new presidency was missing this year. The first was Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese Prime Minister, who arrived last month.
Hosting Japan first, and South Korea second, as former President Donald Trump did, is a clear indication that the new President and his advisers regard the Asia Pacific region as their top long-term priority overseas.
Biden’s state and defence secretaries have already visited Tokyo and Seoul. In late April, military leaders from the three countries met in Hawaii. Shortly before that, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan hosted his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
“The fact that they are here tomorrow, that it’s a full bilateral program, makes clear the importance of that strategic relationship,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.
That isn’t to say that meeting with Moon will be easy: South Korea and the United States currently have several different domestic and geopolitical priorities, and the longtime allies don’t always agree.
Moon requires more Covid-19 vaccines to help inoculate his country’s population, while Washington requires Seoul’s assistance in pressuring China on issues of mutual concern, such as human rights and trade.
According to the Financial Times, Biden will try to persuade Moon to be tougher on China, but South Korea may be hesitant. Beijing is Seoul’s most important trading partner, and it has used its economic clout in recent years to punish the country for political decisions it does not agree with.
Moon is also expected to press Biden to keep reaching out to North Korea in order for the two countries to work out a diplomatic solution to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and formally end the Korean War. Biden will spend “significant” time discussing North Korea with Moon, according to a senior administration official, but the US President has previously indicated that he is not keen to continue Trump’s more open policy toward Pyongyang.
The White House’s North Korea policy review process, which was completed a few weeks ago, was heavily influenced by Japan and South Korea. The Biden administration has stated that it is open to diplomacy with North Korea and intends to take a “calibrated, practical approach,” as opposed to the Trump administration’s grand bargaining strategy or the Obama administration’s emphasis on “strategic patience.”
South Korea, according to Moon’s communications director, Jung Man-ho, supports the new “pragmatic and flexible” plan.
The clock, on the other hand, is ticking. This could be Moon’s last chance to reach an agreement with the US and North Korea before his single five-year term ends next year, implying that his ambitious agenda for peace on the Korean Peninsula will likely remain unfulfilled, at least during his term. Though Moon stated in a speech earlier this month to commemorate his fourth year in office that he will not be re-elected, “During the remainder of my term, I will not be pressed by time or become impatient,” he said, adding that “the time for long deliberations is also coming to an end.” It is time to take action.”
“If there is an opportunity to restart the clock of peace and advance the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, I will do everything I can,” he said.
The White House has made overtures to North Korea’s leadership, but they appear to have gone unanswered. According to two sources familiar with the situation, the Biden administration is open to sharing coronavirus vaccines and other humanitarian aid with North Korea to aiding in the fight against the deadly pandemic because it is believed that the North Koreans will not be ready to engage with the US until the pandemic threat has passed.
To date, North Korea has taken extraordinary measures to prevent the pandemic from overwhelming its ailing healthcare system. According to the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang, foreign diplomats and aid workers have fled en masse due to food shortages and “unprecedented” restrictions on daily life imposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Because of the pandemic, North Korean athletes have decided not to compete in the Olympics or World Cup qualifiers.
It’s unclear whether Pyongyang will be willing to resume talks once the pandemic has passed, but recent statements from Pyongyang could indicate that roadblocks remain.
North Korea warned the US earlier this month that it would face a “crisis beyond control in the near future” in response to Biden’s remarks that its nuclear program poses a “serious threat to America’s security and world security,” remarks that the country’s foreign ministry described as a “big blunder” indicative of an “outdated policy from a Cold War-minded perspective and viewpoint.”
Before agreeing to a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump threatened nuclear destruction and called Kim Jong Un “rocket man,” so both sides are likely aware that fiery rhetoric is often just that.