The summit between President Joe Biden and President Moon Jae-in on May 21 was a resounding success. Substantively and symbolically they reaffirmed the important strategic and economic relationship between Seoul and Washington. But at the same time, they carefully avoided the differences between the two on how to proceed in dealing with North Korea, particularly on human rights issues.
Symbolically the summit emphasized the importance and the historical roots of the ties between the two countries. Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington was only the second by a head of state to be hosted by President Biden since his inauguration, which clearly emphasizes the importance Washington gives to the relationship with Seoul. The fact that the first two leaders to meet with Biden were the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of South Korea also emphasizes the importance and concern the new U.S. administration is giving to the challenge of an increasingly aggressive China, which is seen as a serious threat to interests of both South Korea and Japan, as well as the United States.
Symbols of the Historic Ties that Bind Seoul and Washington
The fact that Moon Jae-in was so high up on the very long list of foreign visitors wanting to meet with the new occupant of the White House was also symbolic of the historic tradition and the priority accorded Seoul, and the visit was an occasion to highlight the close relationship with Seoul going back some seventy years to the challenge of the Korean War, in which the United States and South Korea fought side-by-side in the effort to prevent a bloody takeover of the South by the North. In making the announcement of President Moon’s visit, the White House spokesperson said the visit would “highlight the ironclad alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and the broad and deep ties between our governments, people, and economies.”
One of the important symbols of that relationship during President Moon’s visit was the awarding of the Medal of Honor by President Biden to a U.S. military hero for his bravery during the Korean War. This was the very first Medal of Honor awarded by the new U.S. president, and he wanted to highlight differences with his predecessor by honoring a true hero. In the previous administration, the day after an unruly mob invaded the U.S. Capitol and delayed the certification of the presidential election, Donald Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom to three professional golfers at a closed White House ceremony. Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency to retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett, who “distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” during a particularly fierce battle early in the Korean War.
President Moon Jae-in was at the White House for the Medal of Honor presentation—the first time a foreign head of state was invited to attended and participate in such an occasion. Biden asked President Moon to speak, and the South Korean president emphasized the strength of Korean and American bonds: “Without the sacrifice of veterans including Colonel Puckett, freedom and democracy we enjoy today couldn’t have blossomed in Korea. . . . The ROK-U.S. alliance, forged in blood of heroes, has become a linchpin of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. Col. Puckett and his fellow warriors are the link that strongly binds Korea and the U.S. together.”
Resolution of Issues between Washington and Seoul
In the lead up to the Biden-Moon summit, some particularly thorny issues were successfully resolved, largely the result of a more reasonable position being taken by the new U.S. administration. The first of these was the resolution of differences over the “Special Measures Agreement”—the defense cost-sharing arrangement between South Korea and the United States which establishes South’s share of the cost of maintaining U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula. Currently some 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in Korea by agreement between Seoul and Washington as a deterrent to action against the South by a hostile North Korea as well as an assertive China.
The full cost of the U.S. troop presence is estimated at over $5 billion, although many of those military costs would remain wherever the troops are actually stationed. Under previous agreements, the South covered almost $900 million of that cost. The troop presence, however, is not solely a benefit for the South. It is in the United States’ strategic interest to have troops located in Korea and Japan as well as elsewhere beyond U.S. borders. Donald Trump accused the South of “free-riding” on U.S. military protection and demanded that the South pay $5 billion or he threatened to withdraw U.S. troops. Trump’s demand strained relations with the South, and the unresolved issue festered during most of his administration.
Dividing the costs of stationing U.S. troops in the South was quickly resolved less than two months after the Biden administration assumed office. Under terms of the new six-year agreement, the South Korean contribution to keeping U.S. troops in Korea will be 13.9% more, taking its annual contribution to more than $1 billion. In the Joint Statement issued by Presidents Biden and Moon during the Washington visit, the two said they “welcome the signing of a multi-year Special Measures Agreement, which enhances our combined defense posture and represents our dedication to the alliance.”
The Joint Statement also noted another important step that pleased the South Korean government. “Following consultations with the United States, the ROK announces the termination of its Revised Missile Guidelines, and the Presidents acknowledged the decision.” That agreement ended a policy under which the South Korean government agreed to limit the South’s development of longer range missiles and missiles capable of a heavier pay-load. This was done under pressure from the United States. Many in the South considered it a limitation on the country’s national sovereignty and inherent right to national defense. The Chinese are now likely to have greater concerns than the United States.
Ironically, a North Korean foreign affairs commentator called lifting of the missile limits a “deliberate and hostile act” and said it was “a stark reminder of the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its shameful double-dealing.” The North Korean commentary sought to blame the United States for threats the North’s security. The commentator said, “The U.S. act of giving free ‘missile’ rein to South Korea is all meant to spark off [an] arms race … and check the development of the DPRK.” It is noteworthy that that the commentary was attributed to a “foreign affairs critic,” but there was no affiliation with any North Korean government agency, such as the Foreign Ministry. In North Korea, where government control of the media is absolute, such a commentary may not have been attributed to “the government,” but there is no question that such a commentary was only published because it was the government’s position.
During the Biden-Moon summit, other substantive areas were identified as areas for cooperation in the Joint Statement and in the remarks made by the two presidents following their meeting. The presidents called for cooperation and leadership in dealing with global climate change, they agreed to work together in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in such areas as vaccine production and distribution. The U.S. agreed to provide vaccines for 550,000 South Korean military personnel, and to aid in the manufacture of vaccines in South Korea that have been developed in the U.S. and elsewhere. They also agreed to cooperate on other significant global health challenges and to work together in strengthening and reforming the World Health Organization.
On economic issues, again a shift in emphasis on the United States side was clear. The joint statement noted that South Korea and the U.S. “are among each other’s largest trading and investment partners, and these strong economic ties, particularly the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), are a bedrock.” The two also announced pledges of over $25 billion by private companies in both countries to deal with shortages of semiconductor chips and to reduce dependency on China for advanced technologies.
This joint statement and the remarks made by the two presidents identified broad areas where the two governments were in full agreement to foster greater bilateral and international cooperation. Such a positive outcome would not have been likely without the change of leadership in the White House and the change in tone and understanding of broader U.S. international interests.
Carefully Avoiding Differences on Engagement with the North, particularly on Human Rights
The Joint Statement said the United States and the Republic of Korea “share a vision for a region governed by democratic norms, human rights, and the rule of law at home and abroad.” The two presidents reaffirmed “their shared commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and called for “the full implementation” of UN Security Council resolutions related to the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. President Biden also expressed his “support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation,” which was a cautious nod to President Moon’s effort for engagement with the North.
With regard to human rights, the two leaders affirmed in very general terms:
We agree to work together to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK and commit to continue facilitating the provision of humanitarian aid to the neediest North Koreans. We also share our willingness to help facilitate the reunion of separated families of the two Koreas. We also agree to coordinate our approaches to the DPRK in lockstep.
President Biden announced during the press event with President Moon that in dealing with North Korea, the United States “will proceed in close consultation with the Republic of Korea.” He also announced that career diplomat Ambassador Sung Kim will serve as U.S. Special envoy for the DPRK. Ambassador Kim was senior representative for negotiations with North Korea in the Obama administration, and he served as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (2011-2014) and the Philippines (2016-2020). He has been U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia since August 2020. He brings significant understanding and experience with North Korea, and he has a very good reputation in South Korea as well. In his remarks at the press event following the summit meeting, President Moon welcomed the designation of Ambassador Kim as reflecting “the firm commitment of the U.S. for exploring diplomacy and its readiness for dialogue with North Korea.”
President Biden’s remarks were carefully nuanced on North-South Korea relations in deference to President Moon’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang. In response to a question, Biden was clear that he would “not do what has been done in the recent past”— referring to Trump’s three ill-prepared meetings with Kim Jong-un. Biden said he would “not give him [Kim Jong-un] what he’s looking for: international recognition as legitimate.” Biden was emphatic that any summit with the North would be fully and carefully prepared.
The two presidents were cautious and did not publicly discuss efforts to press North Korea on its human rights abuses. Korean human rights activists in Seoul had called for President Biden to press the Moon government on being more assertive on North Korean human rights. Legislation recently adopted by the National Assembly in Seoul has made it a crime to send human rights leaflets via balloon into North Korea, and human rights activists have been particularly critical of this newly enacted law. Other rumors have circulated suggesting that the South may further crack down on radio broadcasts or private South Koreans efforts to get digital media into North Korea.
The Biden-Moon summit, however, was largely devoted to highlighting areas of agreement, and focusing on the desire and intent of both countries to work cooperatively on a range of important issues. In terms of Bing Crosby’s 1944 pop hit, the summit was a time to “accentuate the positive.” The security challenge of North Korea is a serious problem for both countries and the summit highlighted that both leaders clearly understand that threat. At the same time, the two have much in common dealing with other significant issues such as the threat of China, as well as serious international economic and health problems.
The two leaders do have differences over how best to deal with North Korea and the continuing problem of North Korea human rights. The Biden Administration has been clear on these issues. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in an interview with South Korean radio in connection with his recent visit to Seoul, said, “President Biden has been very clear from day one that he was determined to put human rights and democracy back at the center of American foreign policy. North Korea, unfortunately, is one of the most egregious human rights situations that we know around the world.” In a congressional hearing in Washington shortly before his visit to Seoul, Blinken was asked about the appointment of a Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, which was not filled during the entire Trump term. Blinken told the Congress Members that he felt “strongly” about the need to fill the position. Shortly after Biden took office, the United States formally resumed full participation in the UN Human Rights Council, which has been the focal point of international activity on North Korean human rights abuses, although South Korea has backed away from its previous position of pressing North Korea in the Moon administration.
Differences remain between the United States and South Korea on engagement with the North, and particularly on the importance of pressing the North on its human rights abuses. At this point the areas of agreement between Washington and Seoul are more in forefront, but differences on dealing with North Korea, including its particularly egregious human rights problems, continue to be a serious issue that could impact the relationship between the allies.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
Image from Cheong Wa Dae’s Twitter photos.