SEOUL – American leader Joe Biden promised South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday that the United States would fully vaccinate half a million South Korean troops and laid out his conditions for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Both leaders reiterated their commitments to their alliance and to working cooperatively on North Korean denuclearization. But there was considerable substance at their summit in Washington beyond these perennial issues.
In a wide-ranging joint statement and televised press conference, Biden and Moon also addressed vaccine, technology and supply chain cooperation, with the US leader thanking South Korean corporate leaders for investment pledges worth more than $25 billion.
Noting that Moon was “only the second head of state to visit the White House since I have been president,” Biden said their longer-than-scheduled meetings “had been a real joy.”
Moon, whose political allegiance is to the Democratic Party of Korea, seemed to get along well with Biden. Good vibes were secured when Moon attended a ceremony awarding a very belated Medal of Honor to a Korean War veteran while Biden took the time to praise K-pop.
The meeting confirmed that after the roller coaster years of the Donald Trump administration, South Korea-US ties are now back on a steadier track.
Though Moon and Trump had shared enthusiasm for engaging North Korea’s Kim, the two very different men had never had an amicable relationship and had been at odds over the amount Seoul should pay Washington to cover the costs of US troops stationed in South Korea.
Biden and Moon ended the cost-sharing dispute soon after Biden took office, but divisive issues remain.
Diplomatically and commercially, China remains a point of contention, with South Korea being less keen about confronting Beijing than other Washington allies such as Canberra and Tokyo.
On the military front, the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops from US to domestic command (“OPCON Transfer”) – an issue seen as a matter of sovereignty by Moon – is far from done.
And while Moon, who leaves office next year, is keen to restart talks with North Korea, no related plans were revealed.
Re-affirming “our ultimate goal for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” the US “will proceed in close consultation with [South Korea] in our strategy and our approach,” Biden said.
This will likely be a relief for Moon’s brain trust after the sometimes unilateral and often unpredictable approach taken by Trump.
The summit’s joint statement notes that the US will take a “calibrated and practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy” with North Korea. It noted that Biden “also expresses his support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation.”
That is likely music to the ears of Moon, who has met Kim on four occasions and is an enthusiastic engager. Moreover, Biden, in response to a question from a reporter, clarified his position on potentially meeting Kim.
“If he made any commitment I would meet with him…and the commitment [that] has to be there is discussion about his nuclear arsenal,” Biden said.
“I would not meet unless there is some outline made and my secretary of state and others would have negotiated as to how we would proceed. I have to know specifics…and know exactly what we are meeting on.”
Moon said that Seoul and Washington stood by the Singapore Joint Statement that followed the first Kim-Trump summit of 2018, which was strongly supported by Seoul.
The statement calls for four initiatives: The establishment of new bilateral relations between North Korea and the US; the creation of a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the peninsula; the denuclearization of the peninsula; and recovery of Korean War remains.
As had been hoped for by multiple parties, Biden announced the appointment of a special envoy on North Korea, Sung Kim.
Korean-American Kim has wide experience, having served as US ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia, and having taken part in multiple talks with North Korea.
There was no mention of any possible sanctions relief for North Korea, nor of any roadmap to restart negotiations. North Korea-US relations, and North-South Korean relations, have been gradually freezing since the Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi in 2019 failed to produce a deal.
As is common – indeed, virtually inevitable – at such meetings, the two presidents praised the strength of their alliance, which has held since 1953.
However, looking beyond the shores of the peninsula, the US is seeking a united front against China and has long been frustrated at the inability of Seoul and Tokyo to cooperate closely on defense.
Biden said that Seoul and Washington were working to “address issues of regional and global concern through stronger cooperation partners in the region including ASEAN [Associated of Southeast Asian Nations], the Quad and trilateral cooperation with Japan.”
There had been concern in South Korea that Biden might put pressure on Moon to join the China-facing Quad. Asked if Biden had asked Moon – whose governments support Beijing’s “One China” policy – to take a stronger stance on the Taiwan Strait, Moon replied, “Fortunately, there wasn’t such pressure.”
On the defense front, the only downside for Moon’s side related to OPCON Transfer. It is widely believed in South Korea that Moon wants the process to be completed as a legacy issue when he leaves office next year. However, Moon said the two had reconfirmed their commitment to a “conditions-based transfer.”
Asia Times has learned that the 26 conditions set by the US side are far from being met by the South Korean military.
However, the US lifted a long-held cap on South Korean missile development, ownership and deployment. Moon announced “with pleasure” the “termination of the revised missile guidelines,” Moon said.
Those guidelines date back to 1979, when – with South Korea under the US nuclear umbrella – Washington placed a limit on the ranges and payload weights of South Korean missiles. No such restrictions will now apply, granting the country full missile sovereignty.
With Korea’s vaccination drive proceeding slowly due to global bottlenecks in vaccine supply, Korean media had questioned whether Moon could secure some of the millions of vaccine doses that the US holds.
Biden announced that the US would provide “full vaccinations” for South Korea’s 550,000 active-service military personnel.
The two leaders also agreed on a comprehensive “KORUS Global Vaccine Partnership” given that Korea, along with India, Indonesia and Brazil, is a key manufacturer of vaccines.
“The US has ability to develop vaccines and Korean companies have the capacity to produce bio medicines. We are going to combine those abilities,” Moon said.
Details, however, were scant. A joint working group is to be established.
There was not, as had been hoped, any mention of a travel bubble or travel corridor to link the two nations as vaccinations proceed.
With global supply chains facing uncertainty amid China-US rivalry in the technological space, the leaders addressed cooperation and investment.
The US and South Korea are cooperating to “shape emerging technologies around our shared value system” Biden said. “This includes everything from strengthening our cybersecurity to deepening our cooperation to building out an open, secure 5G network.”
Biden was “particularly gratified that so many South Korean companies” are investing in the US, he said, noting that “more than $25 billion dollars of new investments” had been announced by Hyundai, LG, Samsung and SK. Sectors covered include semiconductors, lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles.
Moon has been accompanied on his trip by a delegation of business leaders from those firms. On Saturday, the last day of his US visit, Moon will visit the site of an SK lithium-ion battery plant.
“These new investments are going to create thousands of good-paying jobs and jobs of the future, right here in the US,” Biden said. “And they are going to help to fortify the supply chain for things like semiconductors and electric batteries.”
Much of the above had been anticipated. But there were surprises. Moon said Korea and the US would “expand our cooperation in civil space exploration, 6G and green energy.”
While 6G research is a national strength, given Korea’s core competencies in telecommunications devices and networks, space exploration and green energy are not.
And Moon – by conviction an anti-nuclear politician despite his country’s leading-edge atomic power plants – revealed the two countries would also cooperate in the “global nuclear power plant market.”