Moon-Biden summit makes limited progress on North Korea

SEOUL — The U.S. and South Korea have characterized their relationship as an “ironclad alliance” ever since they signed a mutual defense treaty in 1953. North Korea continues to test their partnership.

At a summit between Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden in Washington on Friday, the South Korean president pushed his American counterpart to reignite efforts for peace on the Korean Peninsula — a process that has stalled since the collapse of talks at the 2019 Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi.

Biden addressed the issue in his usual pragmatic manner. He reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while also recognizing the numerous challenges standing in the way of signing a concrete, effective, and long-lasting agreement on the abolition of nuclear weapons.

“We have closely studied what others have tried and what worked and hasn’t worked,” Biden said during the joint press conference on Friday. “We are under no illusions of how difficult this is, none whatsoever,” he said.

Although Biden verbally assured Moon that the U.S. continues to be strongly committed to long-term peace on the Korean Peninsula, he also made his departure from his predecessor’s policies clear. Unlike Trump, Biden is aiming at a more phased denuclearization approach and also said he has no intention of meeting Kim Jong Un without preconditions.

When asked if he would consider a face-to-face meeting with Kim, Biden said he would only be open to doing so if the North Korean leader was prepared to engage in serious discussions about scaling down his nuclear arsenal. For Biden, lower-level talks would have to precede any summit, so there would be a clearly-defined “outline” that would guide negotiations in a more systematic manner.

To better coordinate his administration’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea, Biden announced on Friday the appointment of Sung Kim as the U.S. Special Envoy for the DPRK. Kim is currently serving as ambassador to Indonesia. He previously served as the U.S. special envoy to the Six-Party Talks during the Obama administration and played a leading role in coordinating U.S.-DPRK talks in 2018.

Youngjun Kim, professor at Korea National Defense University, said that despite the appointment of Sung Kim, it will take time for Pyongyang to take any action.

“Sung Kim has mixed records, from strategic patience to the Singapore Agreement,” Kim said. “The DPRK needs time [to conduct] a policy review among its departments as a normal country would and then [decide whether] Kim [Jong Un] will choose to negotiate with the Biden administration or not.”

Although the appointment of a special envoy, could be regarded as a potential step forward for U.S.-North Korea relations, other outcomes of the summit may not be received as positively in Pyongyang. For instance, any mention of human rights is never welcomed by North Korea.

Sung-Yoon Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, said the summit “provided North Korea much fodder for slamming Moon, who agreed to mention the phrase ‘human rights’ four times in the joint statement,” as well as mentioning “freedom of expression and religion.”

While North Korea has yet to comment on the Washington summit, another issue is the U.S. decision to remove restrictions on South Korea’s use and development of missiles.

First signed in 1979, the restrictions put limits on Seoul’s missile development program. Although subsequent revisions allowed the range of South Korean missiles to reach any part of North Korea, Moon’s push for having these restrictions lifted could result in a “mixed outcome” with regards to North Korea, according to Youngjun Kim.

When Moon publicly praised South Korea’s missile development back in March, Kim Yo Jong, sister of the North Korean leader, called Seoul’s pursuit of missiles “shameless” and “illogical and brazen-faced behavior.” She referred to Moon as “a parrot raised by America.”

North Korea has repeatedly criticized Moon’s pursuit of greater defense capabilities, calling it “self-contradictory” to his rhetoric on peace and inter-Korean cooperation.

Although South Korean media are largely celebrating the lifting of the restrictions, this move could easily backfire on Moon’s efforts to improve inter-Korean relations.

Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert and author of “Kim Jong Un and the Bomb,” tweeted: “We’ll likely see ROK develop meaningfully new qualitative capabilities that’ll weigh on North Korea & China alike (think: MRBMs, UCAVs, longer-range conventional SLBMs even).”

But the lifting of the missile restrictions does not automatically mean worsening Washington-Pyongyang or peninsula relations, according to Youngjun Kim. “If inter-Korea relations and US-DPRK relations improve, the DPRK will think South Korea’s missiles will not target North Korea, but China or Russia,” he says.

Still, with less than ten months left in office, Moon doesn’t have much time to make significant progress on the North Korea issue.

“One important factor that would influence U.S. willingness to negotiate with North Korea is the possibility of continuity of the [current South Korean] ruling party policy toward North Korea, namely [how big] the chance is of the ruling party winning the elections,” Youngjun Kim said. “If that possibility is high, the Biden team will speed up its negotiations.”

But with South Korea’s ruling party having lost two major mayoral elections last month, it’s difficult to say for sure if a ruling party candidate will be able to win next year’s elections and continue Moon’s North Korea agenda. The ball is now in North Korea’s court.


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