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International relations

Biden and Moon align on North Korea but walk fine line on China

US leader names veteran Sung Kim special envoy and aims for 'practical progress'

U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in participate in an expanded bilateral meeting at the White House on May 21.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in showed unity regarding North Korea while papering over any differences on China when they met at the White House on Friday.

Biden said he is willing to meet with Kim Jong Un if the North Korean leader makes a commitment "that there's discussion about his nuclear arsenal." The American president said he will not agree to meet if giving Kim "international recognition" is the sole outcome of such a face-to-face.

When it came to China, the leaders avoided direct references during their joint news conference in the evening. In a joint statement released afterward, the presidents said they "emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."

Biden and Moon agreed to "work together to increase the global supply of legacy chips for automobiles," and to support leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing in both countries "through the promotion of increased mutual investments as well as research and development cooperation," the joint statement says.

Moon's visit makes him the second foreign leader Biden has hosted in Washington as president, after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

"It's a reflection of how much we value the 70-year alliance with the Republic of Korea, and how essential we know the relationship is to the United States, the future of the Indo-Pacific region, and quite frankly to the world," Biden said, using the Asian country's formal name.

The news conference followed closed-door meetings as well as a Medal of Honor ceremony in which Biden awarded retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., a 94-year-old veteran who served in the Korean War. Moon is the first foreign leader to have attended such a ceremony.

"Our goal is and remains complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Biden told reporters. "We want to make practical progress, and increase security for the United States and our allies."

Biden listens to Moon speak at a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on May 21.   © AP

The U.S. president also announced the appointment of Sung Kim as special envoy for North Korea.

A seasoned diplomat, Kim has held numerous posts, including U.S. ambassador to South Korea, special representative for North Korea policy and special envoy for the six-party talks. While serving as ambassador to the Philippines, he led the U.S. delegation that met with North Korean officials at the border village of Panmunjom.

Biden, whose administration recently concluded a policy review on North Korea, pledged to continue close consultations with South Korea on its strategy and approach.

Moon welcomed the appointment.

He went on to say that a "calibrated and practical approach to seeking diplomacy with North Korea is indeed a welcome direction of the Biden administration's North Korea policy," referring to the language used by Washington after concluding its policy review.

As for relations with China, the two leaders' remarks show Washington and Seoul have yet to arrive on the same page.

Biden said the leaders addressed "issues critical to regional stability, such as maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and preserving peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits."

His South Korean counterpart made no mention of either. When asked if the Biden administration pushed him to take a tougher stance when it comes to China's posture toward Taiwan, Moon said that "there wasn't such pressure."

He continued: "As for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, we agreed how important that region is, especially considering the special characteristics between China and Taiwan. We just decided to work more closely on this matter going forward."

The two countries also announced a vaccine partnership in which South Korea will produce U.S.-developed vaccines to boost global supplies. The U.S. will also help vaccinate 500,000 South Korean service members.

On the business side, a series of South Korean investments into the U.S. was announced during Moon's visit.

On Thursday, SK Innovation and Ford Motor announced a $5.3 billion joint venture for an electric vehicle battery plant. U.S.-South Korea ties in the sector are growing stronger, as evidenced by the Biden administration's brokering of a settlement between SK and LG Chem earlier this year to secure supplies for the American EV industry.

Biden and Moon pose for a picture with Korean War-era Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. at a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room at the White House on May 21.   © Reuters

Separately on Friday, South Korea's presidential office said Samsung Electronics plans to invest $17 billion for a chip contract manufacturing plant in the U.S.

Moon's itinerary includes a visit to SK Innovation's electric vehicle battery plant in Georgia this weekend.

"There's enough there for both sides to declare that this has been a successful summit, even though we're not going to have a clear deliverable when it comes to North Korea policy, or a complete alignment on China," Sue Mi Terry, a South Korea watcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Nikkei Asia ahead of the joint news conference.

According to a Thursday report by the Financial Times citing people familiar with the matter, the Biden administration was trying to convince Moon to take up strong language against China in a joint leaders' statement after the summit.

Ryan Hass, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank, called the pressure an "unfortunate development."

"The visit should showcase strength of alliance -- shared values and principles, positive shared vision, and material benefits both sides derive from the relationship, not gaps in our respective comfort levels in calling out Chinese behavior of concern," Hass tweeted Thursday before the summit.

Moon also did not mention the Quad -- short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, consisting of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

While the Biden administration is eager for South Korea to get more involved, the Moon administration has kept the Quad at arm's length, only showing interest in joining some of the dialogue's ad hoc working groups.

The joint statement says the U.S. and South Korea acknowledge "the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism including the Quad," but offers no specific action plans.

CSIS' Terry said there are a host of reasons why "South Korea pursues more or less of a hedging policy between the United States and China."

These include its trade volume with China, which is larger than South Korea's trade with Japan and the U.S. combined, as well as China's past economic sanctions on South Korea over THAAD deployment and the fact that South Korea still counts on China's role in engaging North Korea.

But the Biden administration "is right to nudge South Korea, to say there is an opportunity cost here for South Korea to not really sit at the table with us," Terry said.

While it is understandable that Seoul should have qualms about upsetting its large neighbor, South Korea is passing up the chance to act like an important Indo-Pacific power and help shape the regional order, she said.

David Kang, a professor at the University of Southern California, said there is a mismatch in the foreign policy goals of the two treaty allies.

For the U.S., the conventional wisdom is that China needs to be contained, Kang said at a seminar on Thursday. For the Moon administration, though, the most important threat is not Taiwan but North Korea.

"If you're going to do anything with North Korea, you have to have good relations with China," Kang said. Therefore, Moon will be "very careful" about what to say about China. "It's not simply because they're afraid of China," he added, "but because they view China as an important element of their national security."

Before the summit, Moon visited Arlington National Cemetery, where he donated a plaque.

The South Korean president also visited the memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the former U.S. president known for bringing the country back from the Great Depression with his New Deal.

The allusions of Moon's tribute are twofold: Last year, South Korea introduced a "K-New Deal" that would see over $130 billion in post-coronavirus spending by 2025. Biden's own ambitious plan to invest heavily in American infrastructure has also been compared to Roosevelt's program.

This is Moon's first official trip overseas since his visit to China in December 2019.

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