Festina lente: make haste slowly. Will this principle set the tenor for the 21 May summit between US president Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in? The meeting marks the first opportunity for the leaders to convene in person to coordinate on global, regional and Korean Peninsula challenges. As important, however, will be whether Biden and Moon take time to build rapport as heads of state. Mason Richey specially for the East Asia Forum.
There will be pressure to keep pleasantries short, as the agenda is full of tricky subjects important to the US–ROK alliance: North Korea, COVID-19 vaccines and relations with China. Yet curtailing the bonhomie would be a mistake. Particularly for Moon, pressing policy issues without first connecting with Biden on a personal level risks appearing alternately desperate and overbearing. Yet he will be tempted. Biden is newly inaugurated, while Moon is approaching lame-duck status and needs foreign policy wins to burnish his legacy and improve his party’s chances in South Korea’s presidential election next March.
Prospects are bleak for Moon to kickstart serious renewed Washington–Pyongyang engagement. The two leaders will surely discuss the Biden administration’s recently-completed North Korea policy review — which reiterates denuclearisation as top US priority and argues against the failed North Korea approaches of previous US administrations, yet offers vanishingly little to build a better strategy. Superficially, the review roll-out hints at items Moon favours: a ‘practical, calibrated, measured’ approach and Biden’s willingness to uphold the Singapore Statement. But under the surface, the United States is uninterested in moving quickly on the North Korea dossier. The Biden administration is prioritising domestic issues, and on the nuclear front Iran has taken precedence as a more tractable problem.
The North Korea policy review is a convenient tactic to appear engaged while placing the onus to respond back on Pyongyang. And Washington is aware that Kim Jong-un’s regime seems firmly turned inward due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus is also apparently uninterested in engagement. Putting the ball back in Pyongyang’s court draws out an issue with little upside. This risks turning into ‘strategic patience 2.0’. Indeed, currently the United States reportedly has no plans to even name a North Korea envoy.
Naturally, there are potential summit wild cards: a pre-summit North Korean provocation that moves the needle or revelations of meaningful US–North Korea discussions. But the best Moon can likely hope for is an opportunity to begin to shape the future contours of US strategy on North Korea. He may not be around to see this take form. That would be a bitter pill personally, but it is responsible leadership, and certainly better than pushing too hard and straining his relationship with Biden.
For the South Korean public, COVID-19 vaccines are a more important summit deliverable than a North Korea breakthrough. South Korea’s coronavirus mitigation has been excellent, but Moon administration hubris and myopia has led to late vaccine shipments. Now South Korea lags behind its peers in vaccination rates, and Moon is facing increasing criticism for this failure. Recent polls show — for the first time — a plurality of respondents rating Moon’s COVID-19 policies negatively.
Earlier talk of a US–South Korea vaccine swap never panned out, but Moon is expected to arrive in Washington with outlines for a new ‘vaccine partnership’ that combines South Korean production capacity with US technology and raw materials. Presumably this deal would include the United States expediting vaccine doses to South Korea in exchange for future deliveries in the other direction. The probability of such an arrangement is uncertain, as the United States has been cagey about vaccine globalism. Perhaps Moon will gently remind Biden how South Korea helped the United States with PPE donations during the early days of COVID-19.
The China dossier also contains items of interest for the Biden–Moon summit. The United States would like to see South Korea embrace Washington’s ‘clean network’ policies on Chinese 5G technology. Seoul is reluctant to commit to this both for commercial reasons and due to trade reliance on China. The same hedging logic is at play in the question of how South Korea might participate in initiatives of the Quad, which Beijing criticises as ‘anti-China’.
Supply chain diversification away from China — notably for semiconductors and other advanced technologies — is another US goal, and here again South Korea is in a quandary with respect to how to satisfy both its security and economic needs. Biden will be interested to know more about the geo-economic valence of South Korea’s US$450 billion plan to expand its semiconductor industry.
Other issues will arise at the summit, including climate change, US–ROK–Japan trilateral cooperation, transfer to South Korea of wartime operational control, and the upcoming G7 (South Korea is observer). Even if the Biden–Moon summit agenda is tough, the basis for progress is there. A lingering military burden-sharing agreement has been finally signed, and the 2+2 ministerial in April was productive.
The optics this week will be good and bromides about an ‘ironclad’, ‘linchpin’ alliance will be intoned. Business delegations will announce deals. But if Biden and Moon want to lay the groundwork for US–South Korea cooperation during the Biden presidency, they should be patient in their first summit. If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
Mason Richey is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), Seoul.