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Regional Interests

At White House Summit, South Korea's Moon Will Make A Push For North Korea Peace

People in Seoul watch a news report in November on the U.S. election, showing images of Joe Biden, newly elected as president, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
People in Seoul watch a news report in November on the U.S. election, showing images of Joe Biden, newly elected as president, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

SEOUL — It isn't hard to see a pattern in the first two foreign heads of state to visit the Biden White House: Both are leaders of key Asian allies and free market democracies. Last month, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was the first to meet with President Biden in Washington. On Friday, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in will be the second.

For President Biden, these visits are a first step toward his pledge to repair alliances that some felt were discounted during the Trump administration. It's also a chance to team up with fellow democracies to fend off challenges from autocratic states.

For President Moon, the visit represents a final push to deliver on his promises of achieving peace in the Korean Peninsula and protecting citizens from the coronavirus, amid criticism that the government's vaccine rollout has been sluggish.

"I will consider the remaining one year of my term to be the last opportunity to move from an incomplete peace toward one that is irreversible," he said in a May 10 address marking four years in office.

Moon scored diplomatic successes early in his five-year term, meeting four times with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 and 2019 and brokering the 2018 Singapore summit between Kim and former President Donald Trump. But negotiations have stalled since an abortive Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam in 2019.

It appears that all three countries could now be in agreement on a way forward for diplomacy: pick up where Trump and Kim left off in Singapore in 2018.

"It is very likely that President Moon will push for the Singapore statement to be included" in a joint statement at the end of the Moon-Biden summit, says Minseon Ku, a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University who researches the effect of summit diplomacy on public opinion.

That would be seen as a success for Moon, she says, and "it hopefully might change Kim Jong Un's mind about restarting nuclear diplomacy with the U.S."

Ku notes the Singapore statement includes an agreement in principle on denuclearizing North Korea as well as on upgrading the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, although it doesn't specify how.

Kim is unlikely to unilaterally give up his nuclear weapons. But the upshot of the Biden administration's recently completed North Korea policy review is that Washington is willing, in the words of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, to take a "calibrated, practical approach," engaging diplomatically with Pyongyang to make incremental progress toward denuclearization.

Biden's goal of enlisting South Korea's help in coping with China is likely to be more difficult.

South Korea's geographic proximity and trade ties with Beijing, and its experience of being sanctioned by Beijing in 2016 and 2017 after the U.S. deployed anti-missile batteries in South Korea, all constrain Seoul from publicly criticizing China or joining in U.S.-led military activities that Beijing might perceive as being directed at it.

Some South Koreans see this as fence-sitting and would like Seoul to align itself more closely with the U.S.

Any ambiguity in Seoul's stance "will only strengthen the impression that Korea is the weakest link in the network of U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific," argues Ho-young Ahn, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul and a former ambassador to the U.S. "It will eventually lead to Korea losing credibility, both with the United States and China."

Seoul could make a start, he suggests, by joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping that includes the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. Beijing sees the Quad as an anti-China bloc. It's not clear, however, if the current members will invite Seoul to join.

But, Ahn says, keeping the alliance with the U.S. as the bedrock of its security policies doesn't mean that Seoul must sacrifice ties with Beijing.

"There is no reason why we should be intentionally alienating the relationship between Korea and China," he says.

Park Tae-gyun, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University, says that allies must make allowances for the complexity of each other's diplomatic ties with other nations, which they may find problematic.

For example, he says, "Should the South Korean government criticize the U.S. relationship with Israel? No. Friends have to understand each other, and even when the relationships your friend inevitably has look somewhat strange to you, a true friend should still be understanding."

Park notes that economic and trade issues have become as important as security issues in the U.S.-South Korea relationship and are likely to be on Friday's summit agenda.

Moon's entourage includes executives from top conglomerates Samsung, LG, and SK Group. They're expected to invest in U.S. factories to make semiconductors and electric vehicle batteries, industries in which Biden wants to create jobs and compete with China.

Ku says Moon will be looking also to make a coronavirus vaccine swap with the U.S. to speed up his own rollout at home.

"South Korea will get a number of vaccines from the U.S. in May and June," she says. "And in return, South Korea will produce some of these vaccines in South Korea and send them back to to the U.S. in the later part of the year."

Seoul National University's Park suggests that Seoul and Washington could even team up to offer North Korea some vaccines in order to break the diplomatic ice.

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 20, 2021 at 9:00 PM PDT
In the audio version of this report, we say Ambassador Ho-young Ahn believes President Moon Jae-in's "balancing act between Beijing and Washington can't last." Ahn was in fact referring to strategic ambiguity as a policy option for South Korea, not President Moon Jae-in's current policies.