Biden and Moon see eye to eye on N. Korea in first phone call since Biden’s inauguration

Posted on : 2021-02-05 17:10 KST Modified on : 2021-02-05 17:10 KST
S. Korea and US commit to close cooperation on N. Korean nuclear program
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks on the phone with US President Joe Biden at the Blue House on the morning of Feb. 4. (Courtesy of the Blue House)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks on the phone with US President Joe Biden at the Blue House on the morning of Feb. 4. (Courtesy of the Blue House)

On Feb. 4, US President Joe Biden spoke on the phone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for the first time since his inauguration.

During the call, Biden and Moon agreed to quickly devise a comprehensive strategy on North Korea. They also committed to holding a summit as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.

Biden arranged his phone call with Moon 14 days after his inauguration on Jan. 20.

“President Moon and President Biden had their first phone call as heads of government from 8:25 am to 8:57 am [lasting 32 minutes],” Blue House spokesperson Kang Min-seok said in a briefing on Feb. 4.

In the phone call, Moon congratulated Biden on his inauguration and expressed his hope that the US would realize its vision of national unity and “build back better” under the new leadership. Biden responded by thanking Moon for his kind words of congratulations and support.

There was also an indirect reference to the timing of the phone call, which Koreans had hoped would be arranged more quickly. When Moon thanked Biden for calling him despite being so busy after his inauguration, Biden reportedly said he wasn’t too busy to place a call to the South Korean president.

The Blue House said that the mood in the phone call was “serious” but “relaxed,” with Moon and Biden sharing a chuckle on three occasions.

Biden’s remarks suggest US is open-minded on North Korean policy

According to the Blue House, Moon and Biden also exchanged their opinions about the critical issue of US policy toward North Korea.

Moon called on Biden to work together on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and establishing permanent peace there. In response, Biden praised the efforts of South Korea, which he described as the main party in resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula. Biden also recognized the importance of South Korea’s position and said he would work closely with South Korea on their joint objectives.

“The two leaders agreed to closely coordinate on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea],” the White House said in a readout of the call, released on Feb. 3.

As a principle, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has previously stated that the US intends to consult with allies such as South Korea and Japan as it reviews existing policy and forges a new policy on North Korea. The mention of close coordination in the White House’s statement suggests that Blinken’s principle was also reaffirmed during Moon and Biden’s phone call.

Biden’s praise for South Korea’s efforts and his recognition of the importance of South Korea’s position suggest that the US is giving serious and open-minded consideration to the South Korean government’s Korean Peninsula peace process. For Moon, that’s a positive signal.

It’s also notable that the two leaders agreed on the need to devise a comprehensive strategy on North Korea as soon as possible. To some extent, that eases concerns that the US would be too preoccupied with domestic issues to prioritize the North Korean issue.

“It’s crucial to craft our [North Korean] policy together,” emphasized an official at the Blue House.

Moon had been interested in arranging a summit with Biden in the near future, but their decision to hold the summit after the COVID-19 pandemic is over suggests that it will take place later than Moon had hoped.

Regarding the future role of the South Korea-US alliance, the Blue House reported Moon and Biden as reaffirming that the alliance is key to regional peace and prosperity. Given the values shared by South Korea and the US, the two leaders also agreed to continue developing their alliance beyond cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region into a comprehensive strategic alliance that contributes to the furthering of democracy, human rights and multilateralism, the Blue House explained.

The Blue House said that Moon and Biden didn’t address specific issues, such as South Korea-US joint military exercises in March. Those exercises are thought to be crucial for engineering a change in Korean Peninsula affairs in the first half of the year.

South Korea-US-Japan relations important for peace and prosperity

As for trilateral cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan, the Blue House underlined Moon and Biden’s agreement that cooperation between the three countries and improved relations between South Korea and Japan are important for regional peace and prosperity.

Following Biden’s phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Jan. 27, Japan had little to say about trilateral cooperation and has maintained its chilly attitude toward South Korea. Even so, the South Korean government stressed once again that Suga has demonstrated his commitment to improving ties with South Korea since taking office in Sept. 2020.

A high-ranking official at the Blue House said that trilateral cooperation had come up “naturally during a conversation about Korean Peninsula affairs” but didn’t specify exactly who had brought it up.

“Since the US is still reviewing its policies [toward North Korea and China], today’s phone call [between Moon and Biden] appears to have been focused on setting the South Korea-US agenda,” said Kim Jun-hyeong, director of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy.

A well-informed expert on Korean Peninsula affairs said that the White House’s omission of terms such as “Indo-Pacific” from its readout of the call suggests that “Biden values the alliance.”

“We’re seeing that value not just in rhetoric but in his actual behavior,” the expert added.

By Kim Ji-eun, Lee Wan & Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

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