25.05.2021

Korea Chair Explains - The South Korea-US summit

KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 25/05/2021

By Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Presidents Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden held their first face-to-face summit last Friday, May 21st. Moon became only the second leader to have a physical meeting with Biden, which shows the importance that the new US administration affords to Washington’s alliance with South Korea. The summit was the highlight of Moon’s four-day visit to the US. The South Korean president and his US counterpart issued a joint statement which was nearly twice as long as the previous one issued by Moon and former president Donald Trump in June 2017. For the duration and outcome of the summit went beyond the best expectations that the South Korean side had in advance.

What were the key outcomes from the summit?

From a South Korean perspective, there were three key positive outcomes coming out of the summit. To begin with and arguably of most importance in the long-run, Washington has agreed to terminate the Revised Missile Guidelines that South Korea had had to follow since 1979. These guidelines capped the range and payload of South Korean missiles. With the cap lifted, South Korea is now free to develop its missile programme without constrains. This means that South Korea will be able to enhance its autonomous security capabilities, with a view at deterring not only North Korea but also, crucially for South Korean policy-makers, China. Together with South Korea’s recent announcement of the building of an aircraft carrier and the unveiling of home-made military jets, the removal of the missile guidelines signals the importance that Seoul gives to its autonomous capabilities.

In addition and also of great importance in the long-run, Moon agreed for South Korea to sign up to Washington’s initiatives to contain Beijing – without mentioning China by name. These include issue-areas such as compliance with international norms, respect for human rights, industrial cooperation especially in high-tech sectors, upholding freedom of navigation and stability in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, and support for Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy and the Quad. While in theory the Moon administration continues to maintain a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ between the US and China, the reality is that the administration started to tilt towards Washington’s position months ago. While this was not made explicit during the Trump administration’s time in office due to the erratic policy of the previous US president, Seoul has been more open about this move since Biden took office. So, while South Korea does not see any reason to openly antagonize China, its perception that the Chinese government has become more aggressive and souring public opinion views of China in South Korea have led Seoul to tilt towards Washington.

Very important as well was Seoul’s and Washington’s agreement to form an alliance for the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines. Under the label KORUS Global Vaccine Partnership, the two countries have committed to provide COVID-19 vaccines and, potentially in the future, vaccines for other illnesses as well. South Korea is the third largest manufacturer of vaccines in Asia behind China and India, and South Korean firms have signed agreements with US drug firms to manufacture their vaccines in the country for distribution across Asia and elsewhere. This partnership means that Seoul and Washington plan to continue to work together in this area for years to come. On a related note and also of great relevance to Moon, Biden announced that the US will ship over half a million vaccines to South Korea to be used by the country’s armed forces. This will help South Korea to accelerate is vaccination programme, and was an unexpected diplomatic coup for Moon.

What was discussed with regards to North Korea?

North Korea featured prominently during the Moon-Biden summit. The US agreed to make the Singapore Joint Statement signed by Trump and Kim Jong-un in 2018 the starting point of its policy towards Pyongyang, and also made clear that the door for diplomacy is open should Kim decide to cross it. Washington agreed to support the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration signed by Moon and Kim as well. Plus, the US announced that Sung Kim, former US Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks and also former Ambassador to South Korea, will be its North Korea envoy. Sung Kim is a widely respected figure with experience in dealing with Pyongyang. His appointment is yet another sign that Washington is serious about diplomacy with North Korea. With Moon in his last year in office and committed to diplomacy with Pyongyang, it can be said that he received many welcome news during his visit to the US.

Having said that, North Korea’s borders continued to be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pyongyang recently announced its withdrawal from the upcoming football World Cup qualifying matches due to be held in Seoul, and most of the foreign community in Pyongyang continues to be unable to return to the North Korean capital. Thus, North Korea’s fear of the COVID-19 pandemic is an important obstacle to any potential resumption of diplomacy. Also, North Korea will feel very uneasy about the end of the Revised Missile Guidelines, for Pyongyang has been critical of Seoul’s missile programme in the past. Plus, North Korea has indicated that from its perspective the Panmunjom Declaration does not apply anymore. Thus, it is unclear at this point if and when Pyongyang may return to the negotiation table. Ultimately, the ball is now in Kim’s court to decide whether he wants to pursue inter-Korean reconciliation and economic independence, or whether he wants North Korea to continue to become more dependent on China.