SEOUL -- In a speech marking the beginning of his fifth and final year in office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to work to attain an "irreversible peace" with North Korea. That elusive goal that will be at the front of his mind when he sits down on Friday for his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Moon is facing the possibility of leaving office next year without having made concrete progress toward ending the two Koreas' decades-long standoff, despite earning critical acclaim early in his term for displays of cooperation with Pyongyang.
If Moon is to strike that elusive breakthrough, he will need buy-in from the U.S., South Korea's main ally and security partner. But Biden's administration has pledged to hold off on high-level talks until after Pyongyang takes credible steps toward relinquishing nuclear weapons, and Moon has other urgent topics to tackle in Washington.
Moon is under pressure to secure supplies of COVID-19 vaccinations from the U.S. amid controversy over the slow pace of coronavirus vaccinations at home. Moon's government has set the goal of having 13 million of the country's 52 million people vaccinated by June, a slower pace than in other developed countries.
His administration has been criticized for a perceived lack of urgency in carrying out vaccinations, feeding into public frustration as a prolonged economic slowdown has been exacerbated by social distancing measures.
"At the summit, Moon's main objectives will be vaccines and North Korea. He will try to get more predictable and stable supplies of vaccines, and to get the U.S. to come to the negotiating table with North Korea as soon as possible," Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University and former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told Nikkei Asia.
"The key, however, is what he can give to the U.S. to persuade Biden to be 'cooperative' on those two primary issues. He may offer to have South Korea join working groups of Quad, without joining as a full member, to join the Clean Network led by the U.S. in the context of decoupling China from the ICT global chain led by the U.S."
After conducting a review of North Korea policy over his first months in office, Biden announced an approach that appears intended to combine elements of the two preceding U.S. presidents.
Biden has signaled that his administration favors a more conventional foreign policy over the top-down, splashy diplomatic style of President Donald Trump, whose predecessor Barack Obama opted for an approach dubbed "strategic patience," which amounted to waiting for North Korea to succumb to the pressure of economic sanctions and offer to negotiate away its nuclear armament in exchange for relief.
"There is recognition in Washington that past U.S. efforts focused on maximum pressure and deterrence have failed to stop North Korea's nuclear proliferation. Understanding this, President Trump tried to establish a new type of bilateral relationship with Pyongyang, albeit in a largely incompetent manner," said Jessica J. Lee, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
"President Biden can build upon the Trump administration's diplomatic efforts by pursuing political reconciliation and gradual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in parallel," Lee told Nikkei.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea has urged Moon to release Samsung chair Lee Jae-yong, arguing that the jailed executive could boost Biden’s efforts to shake off U.S. dependence on computer chips produced overseas.
According to a letter seen by the Financial Times, the chamber warned that South Korea's status as a strategic partner to the U.S. was at risk if Samsung was not more engaged in supporting Biden’s efforts. “We believe that a pardon of the most important executive of Samsung is in the best economic interest of both the U.S. and Korea,” James Kim, the chamber’s chief executive, told the FT.
While in Washington, Moon will also have to address the state of his country's relations with Japan, the other major U.S. ally in East Asia. Ties between Seoul and Tokyo have deteriorated under Moon, with his government taking a more strident tack on issues related to shared wartime history.
The Moon administration effectively nixed a 2015 agreement on the touchy issue of the comfort women, who served in Japanese military brothels during World War II. Seoul determined that the agreement was reached without adequately reflecting the views of the comfort women themselves.
In a move that could herald a halt in the deterioration of ties, in April a South Korean court dismissed a lawsuit by former comfort women, determining that the principle of state immunity protected Japan from litigation in a foreign court.
While in Washington, Moon will therefore be incentivized to signal to Biden that he is willing to cooperate with Tokyo. For his part, Biden may wish to reassure both allies that he plans to take a less transactional approach than Trump, who created friction by depicting both countries as failing to pay their fair share for the stationing of U.S. troops on their soil.
"For Moon this is an opportunity to blunt the criticism that he did irreparable damage to the alliance. And for Biden it's an opportunity to show that he's really restoring America's alliances," Kim Jae-chun, a professor of international relations at Sogang University in Seoul, told Nikkei.
The more ambitious goal of peace with North Korea, however, may remain out of reach, Kim said: "Moon is trying hard to salvage his peace process, but I think his government realizes it's virtually impossible to rekindle the momentum at this stage."