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Commentary: What was unsaid hovers over the Biden-Moon summit



Last week’s summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in was a resounding success. All signals and statements reinforced the image of an alliance that is moving forward with both parties in close alignment. There were no obvious notes of discord and both governments could conclude that respect was mutual, objectives were met and the bilateral partnership was more solid than before.


For all those successes, I can’t escape the feeling that a chance was missed. The two countries identified a long list of shared concerns and seemed ready to act upon them. But all action was framed within a bilateral context. The action items mirrored those of other recent high-level meetings between the U.S. and its security partners, yet made no reference to them. This failure to look beyond the alliance blots what was otherwise a very successful summit and bodes ill for the evolution of this vital security partnership.


In the run-up to the summit, there was some concern. President Moon’s commitment — some would say eagerness — to advance relations with North Korea was feared to clash with President Biden’s skepticism about engaging Pyongyang. South Korean reluctance to directly challenge China was also thought to presage a split that could undermine alliance solidarity.


Observers recalled the disastrous 2001 meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-jung, which revealed a deep division in views about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his commitment to the 1994 Nuclear Framework agreement. After the meeting, it was widely agreed that the South Korean leader had been deeply embarrassed and weakened.


Officials on both sides were determined to avoid that outcome and to focus on the key goals of Biden’s foreign policy: rebuilding U.S. alliances, filling a leadership vacuum that emerged over the past four years and reasserting the stability and superiority of the U.S.-led model for regional and global affairs.


The emotional high note of the meeting was Moon’s presence at the ceremony at which Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to Col. Ralph Puckett, Jr., U.S. Army (retired), for conspicuous gallantry during the Korean War. Moon was the first foreign leader ever to participate in the awarding of the Medal of Honor and his presence shined a spotlight on the sacrifices made on behalf of the alliance.


From there, the meeting took a more prosaic and routine course, but the good mood and progress were unmissable. The leaders’ joint statement applauded their shared “vision for a region governed by democratic norms, human rights, and the rule of law at home and abroad.” They agreed that their partnership was “a linchpin for the regional and global order,” and that they “would reinvigorate and modernize our ties for a new era.”


There were a few surprises. The U.S. agreed to terminate the missile guidelines that gave it influence — if not a veto — over South Korea’s missile capability. Biden announced that the U.S. would provide vaccinations for the 550,000 Korean forces engaging with U.S. forces on the Peninsula on a regular basis. And while the decision to appoint Sung Kim, the well-seasoned former ambassador, as special envoy on North Korea may not have been a surprise, it played well, coming after ROK Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong had called on the U.S. to make just such an appointment.


North Korea was no problem. Both men applauded the consultations and close coordination that occurred throughout the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review. Divergences are certain, but last weekend solidarity prevailed.


While China hawks are quick to point out that China was not explicitly mentioned in any of the statements or documents released after the meetings, its presence was palpable.


In their joint statement, the two men used the boilerplate that is rolled out whenever officials prefer to avoid naming names. They “oppose all activities that undermine, destabilize, or threaten the rules-based international order and commit to maintaining an inclusive, free, and open Indo-Pacific”; they pledged to “maintain peace and stability, lawful unimpeded commerce, and respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond.” The two also noted they share the “intent to promote human rights and rule of law issues, both at home and abroad.” And more significantly, they “emphasize[d] the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” The target of their concern was obvious.


In the statement released after their March summit, Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga mentioned China seven times, but the context was identical: calling for peace and stability, rule of international law, respect for freedom of navigation and overflight, and the protection of human rights. It is hard to get spun up about the failure to call out China by name, especially when regional diplomats are always emphasizing the need for saving face.


Still, I can’t help but be disappointed. The Biden administration deserves credit for having a clear vision and a working template for its diplomacy. The first task, as noted, is rebuilding alliances and reinforcing the model of U.S.-led order.


Once the rhetoric is complete, there is a consistent pattern of engagement on three issues: vaccine diplomacy, which is part of a broader global health agenda; climate change; and cooperation on new and emerging technologies, which includes coordination to build more resilient supply chains.


The “Quad” virtual leaders summit agreed to set up three working groups on those issues. They structure the Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership that Suga and Biden signed. And they are the first three items in the Fact Sheet of the U.S.-Korea Partnership that details the two countries’ agenda.


Consistency is good. It demonstrates a sense of purpose, shows seriousness and commitment, and reinforces previous messages.

Redundancy is not so good. It promotes silos and wastes resources. Given the overlap, it would have made sense for the two leaders to have endorsed those other efforts; ideally, Moon could have offered to participate in Quad initiatives.


The closest he came during the summit was calling for cooperation between Korea’s New Southern Policy and the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific vision. The Quad got a perfunctory mention when the two men acknowledged “the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism.” The statement applauded South Korea’s participation in several global initiatives, making the seeming reluctance to do that in the Indo-Pacific jarring.


Trilateral cooperation also got a mention. Curiously, that reference is more encompassing and more effusive than the one in the Biden-Suga declaration.


Scott Snyder, Korea chair at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that “Korea is like the student that does very well on tests but isn’t so good at class participation.” Seoul can do alliance tasks — narrowly defined — well. It isn’t as effective or as confident when asked to engage in multilateral forums. That may seem like a churlish complaint when so much of the summit went so well, but the reluctance to join those efforts will shortchange South Korea and the world. Korea has done much. It can do more.


Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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