Get off the tightropePresident Moon Jae-in made a comment that could work unfavorably for Seoul at a time it needs its traditional alliance to hasten imports of Covid-19 vaccines. In an interview with the New York Times on April 21, he advised U.S. President Joe Biden to “build on what President Donald Trump has left” as “it would be a mistake to kill the 2018 Singapore agreement” between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Moon’s comment goes against Biden’s policy direction. Biden already called the Singapore agreement — where the U.S. agreed to offer concessions and incentives “simultaneously” in return for phased denuclearization steps — a “failure” and declared he won’t meet Kim face-to-face. Moon’s move clashed with Biden’s policy on North Korea, and this was just ahead of his first summit with Biden, which is scheduled for May.
Moon urged Washington to cooperate with North Korea when the U.S. offensive against China has bipartisan support in the United States. The Biden administration is keeping intact Trump’s anti-China policy despite Biden’s scorn of every other policy of his predecessor. An ally choosing this moment to lecture the U.S. on the need to make amends with China could baffle the new administration in America.
In his address to the Boao Forum for Asia on April 20, Moon said Asian nations could lead the future if they reinforce cooperation in new tech. The remark could sound as if Korea backs China in the tech war between the America and China. Moon also spoke highly of China’s vaccine aid to underdeveloped countries.
At the summit in Washington, the Biden administration will likely deliver some difficult messages to Seoul. It could demand Seoul stand on the U.S. side in the conflict with China, help denuclearize North Korea and improve ties with Japan. None of those demands will be easy for Moon accept. Moon also needs to come home with vaccines. But Seoul has shot itself in the foot by taking North Korea and China’s side. It will be a miracle if Moon can achieve the desired results in his meeting with Biden.
Moon must get off his diplomatic tightrope and stick with alliance-based policies. He must at least confirm his support for challenging North Korea on human rights and the nuclear issue as well as express his will to normalize relationship with Japan. If Korea cannot immediately join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, Moon must at least suggest Korea’s participation in the Covid-19 working group to buck up the alliance and seek a breakthrough in vaccine imports.