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U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday injected fresh urgency into attempts to engage North Korea in dialogue over its nuclear weapons, with Biden saying he would meet its leader Kim Jong Un under the right conditions.

At a joint news conference, Biden and Moon both said the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is their goal. Biden said he was “under no illusions” about the difficulty of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal after his predecessors failed.

“We both are deeply concerned about the situation,” Biden said, adding that he and Moon shared a willingness to engage diplomatically with the North “to take pragmatic steps to reduce tensions.”

North Korea thus far has rebuffed U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with Kim and the two famously exchanged “beautiful letters.”

Kim nonetheless refused to give up his nuclear weapons but did impose a freeze on testing them. He has not tested a nuclear bomb nor launched an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, although experts believe his arsenal has steadily grown.

Biden said he would be willing to meet Kim under the right conditions — if he agreed to discuss his nuclear program and that his advisers first met with their North Korean counterparts to lay the groundwork.

Biden said a veteran State Department official, Sung Kim, would serve as special U.S. envoy for North Korea.

U.S. President Joe Biden, flanked by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and others participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
U.S. President Joe Biden, flanked by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and others participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

South Korea had been pushing for the appointment of an envoy, and Moon, for whom engagement with North Korea is a legacy issue before he leaves office next year, said Sung Kim would help explore whether North Korea is willing to engage diplomatically. He said he expected a positive response.

Sung Kim is a Korean-American diplomat who served as special envoy for North Korea under President Barack Obama and helped set up Trump’s summits with Kim Jong Un.

He has also been ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia and most recently served in an acting capacity as the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia.

Biden said that for him to meet with Kim there would have to be a commitment from the North Korean leader “that there’s discussion about his nuclear arsenal.”

“I would not do what had been done in the recent past; I would not give him all he’s looking for — international recognition as legitimate and allow him to move in the direction of appearing to be more … serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about,” he said.

Biden’s comments appeared to reflect a shift in his thinking. The White House had said in March it was not Biden’s intention to meet with Kim.

Jenny Town of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea-watching project, said Sung Kim’s appointment was positive given the Biden administration had signaled it was in no hurry to fill the post. However, it has given no indication of what concessions it might offer to bring about talks.

“The problem has been that the administration has only talked about denuclearization and continues to characterize any interactions with North Korea as nuclear negotiations,” she said. “So it’s still a tough sell to get the North Koreans back to the table, but obviously Moon is going to push very hard.”

Moon said Biden had expressed support for intra-Korean dialogue and cooperation, but Town said this would not mean much unless Washington, which has refused to ease sanctions on Pyongyang, allowed Seoul the space to move forward with this.

Biden’s administration undertook a broad review of North Korea policy but has said little about what its new policy actually entails.

U.S. officials have said only that it would not be the approach favored by Obama of refusing to engage the North, or Trump’s flashy summitry.

In their day of talks, Biden and Moon reaffirmed a strong alliance between the two countries after the strains created by Trump, who badgered Moon as weak and threatened to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea.

Moon became the second foreign leader after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to visit the White House for a face-to-face meeting with Biden, signaling the U.S. president’s emphasis on relationships with allies in Asia amid the escalating rivalry between the United States and China.

U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in pose for a picture with Korean War-era U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett during a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington on Friday. | REUTERS
U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in pose for a picture with Korean War-era U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett during a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington on Friday. | REUTERS

While the Biden administration is seeking to enlist U.S. allies and like-minded countries to counter China’s growing military and economic assertiveness in the region, Moon appeared to avoid being explicitly critical of his nation’s largest trading partner and an important player in inter-Korea peace talks.

On the situation in the Taiwan Strait, where concerns are growing due to China’s assertiveness toward Taipei, Moon said he agreed with Biden on “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,” he said.

Taiwan has complained of repeated military pressure from Beijing with China’s air force making frequent forays into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

In another win for Moon, who has faced pressure at home over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the United States and South Korea had agreed a vaccine partnership that would combine U.S. expertise and Korean production capacity.

He said this would help supply COVID-19 vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region, while Biden said the United States would provide vaccinations for 550,000 South Korean soldiers.

Moon, meanwhile, highlighted the bilateral cooperation expanding in “new emerging areas that are relevant for the changing times,” citing a plan to work to boost global vaccine supplies by bringing together U.S. technologies and South Korea’s production capabilities.

The two leaders also agreed to cooperate in industries such as semiconductors, as the Biden administration looks to create what it calls a “secure” high-tech supply chain with an aim of reducing reliance on China.

Four major South Korean companies, including Samsung Electronics Co., the world’s largest memory chip producer, announced on Friday plans to invest a total of $39.4 billion in the United States in areas such as semiconductors and batteries for electric vehicles, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

The leaders also agreed to work to address climate change, with Biden making the issue a key part of his foreign policy efforts and encouraging countries to put forth ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Prior to their summit meeting, Biden and Moon took part in a medal-awarding ceremony for a retired U.S. Army colonel who fought in the Korean War, highlighting the significance of the bilateral alliance forged during the 1950-53 conflict.

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