[Editorial] Moon, Biden’s agreement on approach to N. Korea based on Panmunjom, Singapore statements represents progress

Posted on : 2021-05-24 15:29 KST Modified on : 2021-05-24 15:29 KST
Biden shifted his stance on dialogue and diplomacy with North Korea after his summit with Moon
South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds a joint press conference with US President Joe Biden on Friday at the White House after their first in-person summit. (provided by the Blue House)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds a joint press conference with US President Joe Biden on Friday at the White House after their first in-person summit. (provided by the Blue House)

During a Friday summit at the White House, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden discussed the US’s North Korea policy and cooperation on a range of issues, including COVID-19 vaccines, semiconductor and battery supply chains and China policy.

Moon and Biden agreed during the summit to seek an approach to North Korea involving dialogue and diplomacy and based on an inter-Korean statement signed in Panmunjom in April 2018 and the North Korea-US statement signed in Singapore that June. That agreement represents significant progress.

The Biden administration was initially critical of Trump’s “top-down” approach to dialogue with North Korea, which was focused on summits. But in his summit with Moon, Biden shifted his stance to upholding the Singapore joint statement, a hallmark of Trump’s approach. That was the result of the South Korean government’s tireless campaign to win over the Biden administration.

In a press conference following the summit, Biden appointed Sung Kim, acting assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to be the US special envoy to North Korea, filling a position that had remained vacant for the first four months of Biden’s presidency. By announcing Kim’s appointment in the post-summit press conference, Biden sent North Korea a signal about resuming dialogue.

Biden also used North Korea’s official name “DPRK” when introducing Kim’s title, instead of “North Korea,” which the US typically uses. The US was attempting to show North Korea respect as a negotiating partner.

There had been concerns that the Biden administration, given its focus on the battle against COVID-19, the economic recovery, and Middle East issues, would put North Korea policy on the back burner. This summit, fortunately, assuaged those concerns.

We hope the US affirmation of the Panmunjom statement, which mentions various kinds of inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, will provide an opportunity to make inter-Korean relations more autonomous and independent.

The Trump administration cited sanctions on North Korea when it thwarted Seoul’s attempts to improve inter-Korean relations by connecting highways and railroads with the North and by providing the North with Tamiflu, an influenza medication.

“Biden expressed his support for inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. We will make progress on inter-Korean relations in close cooperation with the US and thus create a virtuous cycle in North Korea-US dialogue,” Moon said in a press conference after the summit.

But it’s unclear whether North Korea will agree to dialogue. For one thing, the US has made no mention of retracting what North Korea regards as a “policy of hostility.” Pyongyang says the US must ease sanctions on North Korea and curtail joint military exercises with South Korea before dialogue can take place. Furthermore, North Korea is so focused on fighting COVID-19 and propping up its economy that it may not have time to deal with dialogue.

The South Korean and American governments need to proactively approach North Korea from various angles to explain the North Korea policy on which Moon and Biden agreed in their summit. They also need to quickly decide how to handle the joint exercises scheduled for this August. Now that the conditions for dialogue are in place, we hope North Korea will take advantage of this rare opportunity.

As for the Biden administration’s support for South Korea’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, a possibility that the South Korean public had closely followed, the US has agreed to vaccinate all 550,000 members of the South Korean military. The two sides also agreed to set up a global partnership to combine the US vaccine technology and South Korea’s manufacturing ability.

Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing the huge scale of vaccine support that Koreans had been hoping for, but the agreement leaves open the possibility of more bilateral cooperation on vaccines moving forward. Such cooperation is significant since it could increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines, which would speed up the end of the pandemic.

Forty-two years after South Korea negotiated missile guidelines with the US, Biden and Moon terminated those guidelines, which had capped the range of South Korea’s missiles at 800 kilometers. That’s a significant development, as it restores South Korea’s sovereignty over missile and rocket development. But considering that 800 kilometers was enough range to cover all of North Korea, the US’s agreement to scrap the guidelines appears to be motivated by its efforts to contain China.

Other issues discussed in the summit were the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the Quad, for short – freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Those issues are tied to the sharp confrontation between the US and China.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Moon said he hadn’t been pressured by the US to adopt a tougher stance toward China on the Taiwan issue. Even so, the US is likely to keep asking Korea to join its containment of China. When it comes to the US-China conflict, South Korea must make sensible and wise decisions grounded in the national interest.

South Korean conglomerates, including Samsung, Hyundai, SK, and LG, took the summit as an opportunity to announce 44 trillion won (US$38.98 billion) in investments in the US in the cutting-edge industries of semiconductors, batteries, and biotechnology. We hope this investment will strengthen economic cooperation between our two countries and create a dynamo for future growth.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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