Explained: What Outcome of Biden-Moon Summit?
Prof Rajaram Panda

Following the footsteps of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhide Suga, South Korean President Moon Jae-in travelled to Washington on the invitation of the US President Joe Biden for a summit meeting on 21 May 2021, wherein both the leaders vowed “pragmatic steps” by pursuing diplomacy with North Korea with the long-term objective of reducing tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Making “total denuclearization” as the key “objective”, Biden appointed Ambassador Sung Kim soon after taking office as his Special Envoy to address North Korea and coordinate policy towards Pyongyang with ally South Korea. Kim served as Special Envoy to the multilateral six-party talks with North Korea during the Barack Obama administration, and contributed to the 2018 Singapore statement while serving as US Ambassador to the Philippines.1 Moon was the second foreign leader Biden hosted in person after hosting Suga in April.

Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump’s attempt of personal outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un yielded no positive outcome despite three summit meetings in Singapore, Panmunjon and Hanoi. The question that arises now: will Biden’s approach be different? From what Biden has articulated in his resolve to completely review America’s North Korea policy, it transpires that Biden is seeking a “third way” between Trump’s personal outreach and Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang.2 Moon’s visit also demonstrated the reaffirmation and robustness of the 68-year-old alliance between the US and South Korea.

Five previous US Presidents adopted different approaches to denuclearise North Korea but all failed. White House senior Asia adviser Kurt Campbell acknowledges that the task to denuclearise North Korea is challenging, despite that Biden has chosen a “new and different approach”. It remains unclear, however, if sanctions relief and an inducement for Pyongyang to return to talks is one of the options that Biden is exploring.

Both Biden and Moon expressed “deep concern” about North Korea’s missile programme and planned to work out an engagement strategy. The truism, however, is Pyongyang had a “perfect record of nonchalantly breaking promises it has made”.3 The US, Japan and South Korea have to take a common position in dealing with North Korea’s denuclearisation issue. Unfortunately that has not happened and Biden is aware of this. Given the acrimonious relations between Japan and South Korea, a common ground between the three countries on North Korea has remained elusive. That has worked in Pyongyang’s favour and its leader Kim has exploited this deficiency to the fullest in his favour.

If Biden and Moon expressed their shared commitment to Pyongyang’s complete denuclearisation, can Japan be left out from this strategy? Before adopting a common strategy towards North Korea, it is desirable that Japan and South Korea must bury the historical irritants that haunt both. This could be laudable but not easy, given that emotion has been allowed to shape political policy decision. Nation states once under colonial control but later liberated and emerged independent as free nations are not expected to continue living in the past but should look for the future. Why these two East Asian states cannot draw any lesson or get any inspiration from countries like India and Vietnam which had similar historical past but finally emerged victorious and sculpted friendly relations with countries which ruled them in the past? India once was ruled by the Muslim rulers for centuries but has now close economic, cultural and strategic ties with many Muslim nations. Similarly, relations with Britain, another country that ruled India, are multi-faceted and good. Similarly, Vietnam’s bitter war experience with the US is now long buried. Same is true with its relations with France, another foreign power that ruled Vietnam. Such experiences should be enriching for both Japan and South Korea at a time when both confront a common threat from North Korea.

Biden seems to be seized of this difficulty and therefore seeking new ways for a review process of his North Korean policy and work closely with the two Asian allies so that there are no gaps between them. This was probably one main objective of Biden’s meeting with Suga and Moon successively in two months. It is to be seen if Biden’s new style of diplomacy to achieve denuclearisation of North Korea would be effective than that of his predecessors. Such differences between Biden and Moon in their approaches only work to Kim’s advantage and can play his cards for an outcome in his favour.

Seen at a different level, Biden needs also to strengthen ties with the two Asian allies in view of the deteriorating relations with China, which is why the Taiwan Strait issue figured in the joint statement. That also would be reassuring to Taiwan. The joint statement emphasise “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”, holding China in check though without naming China.4 Seen in the background of Biden-Suga joint statement in April and then the statement issued at the close of the G-7 foreign ministerial meeting in early May, and further by the explicit mention of cooperation within the Quad framework in the Biden-Moon joint statement, it is discernible that the US wants to send a strong message to Beijing to shed its aggressive and unlawful activities. However, for Beijing these seem be mere expression of opinions without any biting power and therefore unlikely to be deterred from its suppression of Uyghur human rights in Xinjiang or stop crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

Biden is the sixth US President to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. Looking for “new and different approach” to achieve complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, Biden’s tasks are gigantic. White House senior Asia adviser Kurt Campbell told on 18 May interview to South Korea’s Yonhap new service that the denuclearisation issue of North Korea is “one of the hardest national security problems the world is facing”.5 The three previous summits between Trump and Kim having failed, it would be premature to expect for another summit without sufficient back channel diplomacy in advance. Kim is unlikely to change his stance that he would not give up anything unless the US lifts sanctions first, even for a step-by-step approach. Though the aim of the sanctions is to deprive North Korea resources that can be channelled into its nuclear weapons and missile programs and prohibits UN member nations from exporting certain goods into North Korea, this has not deterred Pyongyang to seek such supporting materials from other sources, mostly in clandestine ways, and continue its further advance and achieve sophistication in missiles development. There are also reports that Pyongyang has hidden nuclear links with Iran and Myanmar. Given the past such nuclear links between North Korea and Pakistan which are already in the open domain, such suspicion cannot be dismissed outright.

Moon has less than a year in office and therefore Kim is unlikely to respond to any of Moon’s overtures. Victor Cha, the former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House’s National Security Council is of the opinion that because of Moon’s short period in office Kim does not show any interest in any sort of return to the table right now.6 Moon was keen to send a joint Korean team to the Tokyo Olympics. With Pyongyang’s announcement to withdraw from the Games, it is a setback too for Moon.

Lifting of Missile Restrictions

Another significant outcome of Moon’s summit meeting with Biden was that the US agreed to lift restrictions on South Korean missiles. This shall facilitate Seoul to secure longer-range missiles that can fly beyond the Korean Peninsula, thereby enjoying missile sovereignty and beef up its defence capabilities.7 Though invisible, it is not difficult to miss that it was a part of the US strategy to counter China. Now with South Korea enjoying greater missile sovereignty, it would be drawn into the great power game between Washington and Beijing.8 The earlier bilateral “missile guidelines” banned South Korea from developing or possessing ballistic missiles with a maximum range greater than 800 kilometres. No wonder, Moon hailed the lifting as a “symbolic and substantive” demonstration of the robustness of the alliance. Besides boosting defence power, the removal of ‘security shackles’ shall enhance South Korea’s “diplomatic leverage”.

In 1979, the US introduced missile restrictions for the first time when South Korea sought to secure US missile technologies for its own missile development. Seoul agreed in return to limit the maximum flight range of its missiles to 180 km and the weight of warheads to 500 kg. When North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats looked real, Seoul and Washington revised the guidelines four times through 2020 to extend the range to 800 km, scrap the limit on warhead weight and lift the ban on using solid fuel for space launch vehicles. After the agreement reached during Moon’s visit, all those restrictions were terminated. South Korea can now develop and possess any type of missile, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and advanced submarine-launched ballistic missiles. By enjoying now greater strategic flexibility, Seoul now can better prepare to deal with threats from North Korea.

There could be another dimension to this tale. Beijing is not going to take kindly to the US empowering South Korea with greater defence capability as it would see from the prism of its own problematic relationship with Washington and that the US is using Seoul to settle its score with Beijing.

South Korea’s existing ground-based missile Hyunmoo-4 boasts the longest flight range of 800 km among home grown missiles. The weapon with a 2-ton payload was successfully developed in 2020. The strategic scenario in the region can be measured from the simple fact that missiles with a maximum range of 800 km can reach any part of North Korea when fired from South Korea, demonstrating Seoul’s independent deterrent capability. Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University is of the view that the US flexibility indicates that it sees beyond the Korean Peninsula as Beijing and Seoul are only around 950 km apart. Beijing obviously is aware of this that the US has been working to establish air defence systems in the Asia-Pacific region to maintain deterrence against China. Therefore, the fact that the enhancement of missile capabilities by its allies shall serve the US interests vis-a-vis Beijing and Moscow cannot be overlooked. But, given the fast changing security scenario in the region when priorities of the nations are being reoriented in conformity with their own national interests, this seems to be a desirable strategy.

While strengthening alliance relationship with the US is welcome, South Korea could also find itself in a difficult terrain now. With greater missile sovereignty option available now, its ties with Beijing could come under strain as it happened in 2016 when it decided to host the US missile defence system of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD). Willy-nilly, Seoul now risks of getting embroiled in the greater power game between Washington and Beijing. But its choices are limited.

Vaccine Partnership

One positive outcome of the summit was that both Biden and Moon agreed to pursue a global Covid-19 vaccine partnership. Biden pledged to provide full vaccinations for all 550,000 South Korean troops "both for their sake, as well as the sake of the American forces." The decision to form a global comprehensive vaccine partnership for the supply of Covid-19 vaccines, combining advanced US technology with South Korea’s production capacity was laudable.9 Moon said that the project will help accelerate the end of the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing the world's vaccine supply.

As it transpired, Moon-Biden summit was full of promises but little that can be realised in the short term. The unfortunate part is that Moon would not be there during Biden’s full term. Elections are due in South Korea in 2022 and one-term bar prevents Moon to be in the race again. It is premature to hazard a guess which party shall succeed him and who shall be the leader in office, and what policies he/she chooses. This scenario poses a new challenge to Biden. Many of the current issues – pandemic, vaccine production/collaboration and distribution, North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues, strained ties with Japan and many more related issues with implications to the region are likely to be left to Moon’s successor to deal with and in cooperation/consultation with Biden.

  1. “Moon, Biden agree on diplomatic approach on North Korea denuclearization”, The Korea Times, 22 May 2021, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/05/120_309218.html
  2. “US, South Korea Vow 'Pragmatic Steps' to Reduce Tensions, Denuclearize North Korea”, 21 May 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/2021/dprk-210521-rfa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3073%2eon0ao069c5%2e2ug1
  3. “North Korea Clouds U.S.-South Korea Summit: Whose Side is Mon On?”, The Sankei Shimbun, editorial, 26 May 2021, https://japan-forward.com/editorial-north-korea-clouds-u-s-south-korea-summit-whose-side-is-moon-on/
  4. For the full text of the Joint Statement, see, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/05/120_309216.html
  5. “US, South Korea Vow ‘Pragmatic Steps’ to Reduce Tensions, Denuclearize North Korea”, 21 May 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/2021/dprk-210521-rfa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3073%2eon0ao069c5%2e2ug1
  6. For the full text of the Joint Statement, see, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/05/120_309216.html
  7. “US, South Korea Vow ‘Pragmatic Steps’ to Reduce Tensions, Denuclearize North Korea”, 21 May 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/2021/dprk-210521-rfa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3073%2eon0ao069c5%2e2ug1
  8. “Moon, Biden share commitment to vaccine partnership, NK dialogue”, Korea Herald, 22 May 2021, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210522000114

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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