How much impact will Moon-Biden summit have on US N. Korea policy?

Posted on : 2021-04-19 17:02 KST Modified on : 2021-04-19 17:02 KST
Seoul finds itself at a disadvantage in reflecting its position in Washington’s North Korea policy review
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. (provided by 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. (provided by the Blue House)

The announcement by the South Korean and US governments that the first in-person summit between their leaders will be taking place in the US during late May has attention focusing on the impact the meeting will have on the political situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

The Blue House said that discussions were “still underway on the exact summit schedule, agenda, results and protocols.”

The Blue House announced Friday that President Moon Jae-in was “scheduled to have a South Korea-US summit while visiting Washington in the second half of May at the invitation of US President [Joe] Biden.”

In a briefing later that day, a spokesperson explained, “This is the second summit announced since the Biden administration took office [after a previous one with Japan], and it shows both leaders’ strong commitment to advancing the alliance in more comprehensive and reciprocal ways.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki shared a similar message in a regular briefing Thursday, explaining that Moon’s visit would “highlight the ironclad US-South Korea alliance.”

The US’s willingness to share news of Moon’s visit before the exact schedule had been finalized was read as a gesture of consideration ahead of a US-Japan summit scheduled for Friday — ensuring that Seoul would not feel too excluded amid its current friction with Tokyo.

In a New Year’s press conference on Jan. 18, Moon signaled high hopes for his in-person summit with Biden, announcing his plans to “work to ensure that a South Korea visit [by Biden] happens as soon as conditions allow once the COVID-19 situation stabilizes this year” in order to resume the Korean Peninsula peace process.

After intensive discussions between South Korean and US officials, the schedule was finally set for late May. But with the meeting coming over a month after the US-Japan summit, Seoul finds itself at a disadvantage in adequately reflecting its position in the Biden administration’s review of North Korea policy.

Once the Korean Peninsula peace process got off to its miraculous start in March 2018, Japan played the role of “saboteur” in the nuclear talks developed between North Korea and the US during the Donald Trump administration.

In particular, it focused on three demands that North Korea has historically balked at: complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, a ban on ballistic missiles of all ranges and a resolution to the issue of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was seen as likely to place renewed emphasis on these demands at the Friday summit.

In contrast, the Moon administration has insisted on adopting a “realistic” approach to North Korea based on the Singapore Joint Statement of June 2018, which represents the only solid result to come from the North Korea-US talks.

Whenever questions have come up about their review of North Korea policies, US officials have stressed that the re-examination is taking place in close coordination with its allies South Korea and Japan, and that an announcement will be made soon.

But the differences between Seoul and Tokyo’s positions are too great to easily coordinate.

At a Thursday press conference ahead of Suga’s visit to the US, a senior White House official said the US was “nearing the completion of its review on North Korea policy.”

“Japan has been consulted all along, but the two leaders will now have a chance to put the finishing touches on what is an important initiative for the United States,” the official added.

“The United States, the President, the whole team will underscore Japan’s interests in these issues [including] not only medium, long-range missiles and the nuclear program, but the status of the abductees that have come from Japan and [...] were held in North Korea,” they continued.

Other matters that appear likely to be addressed at the summit include ideas for coordination on Washington’s biggest diplomatic concern — its policies toward China — and the related issue of supply chain stability in key industry areas such as semiconductors. Discussions are also expected to focus on the global climate change agenda and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including bilateral cooperation to ensure steady access to vaccines, which remain in short supply in South Korea.

In introductory remarks at a Thursday expanded meeting of Cabinet ministers in economically related areas, Moon spoke about semiconductors as an industry that has been central to the South Korean economy’s prosperity since the 1990s.

“This is a key national strategic industry that the present and future of the South Korean economy hinges upon,” he stressed, adding that South Korea would “continue to take the lead in the global semiconductor supply chain.”

A Blue House official said, “Overcoming COVID-19 and achieving economic recovery are important governance issues that both countries are assigning top priority to.”

“We are also conducting a review of major policies, including an examination of the supply chains for items in four key areas: semiconductors, high-capacity and electric vehicle batteries, rare-earth elements and other key minerals and strategic goods, and pharmaceuticals and related materials,” the official added.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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