How not to blow it
The author is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in holds his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden Friday next week. The meeting will offer a precious chance to reset bilateral ties between the two allies and respond to international problems. But there are worries that the summit might only confirm their differences. To avoid such a grim scenario, Moon and his aides must study Biden thoroughly.
Biden has been a core member of the Democratic Party since he was elected to the Senate in 1973. The Democrats strongly uphold human rights, equality in race and gender, a clean and sustainable environment, fair taxation and social security and vehemently oppose any cause-less war engagements like in Vietnam and Iraq. Such values are primarily rooted in their faith in human rights. Therefore, it would be meaningless for Moon to preach to the Democratic president the need for compassion and understanding towards North Korea. Such a message would go directly against the deep-rooted principles of the seasoned politician.
As a longtime member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden showed his diplomatic style clearly. In 1979, when he led a group of American Congressmen to the Kremlin to argue for a mutual arms reduction treaty, he sat down with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin. During a meeting that lasted for three hours, Kosygin lectured on how the U.S. was the sole nation to have used nuclear weapons and could do so against the Soviet Union. When he under-reported the number of Soviet tanks in Europe, Biden cut in, “I’m from Delaware and we have a saying — you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.” The interpreter toned it down to “You can’t kid a kidder.”
In 1993, Biden supported an amendment to lift a U.S. arms embargo that “serves to sustain the military advantage of the aggressor” to exempt the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the embargo and offer assistance to safe areas of Bosnia. When President Bill Clinton stalled bombing campaigns against Serbia in the Kosovo conflict citing violation of international laws, Biden accused Clinton of believing only in the facts and information as a former Rhodes scholar and advised him to believe in his “instinct” instead on the Serb case. To Biden, the devastation of humanity he had seen with his own eyes mattered more. He looked Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic right in the face and called him a “damned war criminal.”
In his 2007 autobiography “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics,” Biden wrote, “When you speak with the backing of the United States, modesty is not as important as candor.” That was a reference to global leaders who can sniff weakness. So, it is better for America to demonstrate its power to win their confidence, Biden thought.
He called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a “thug” and accused Chinese leader Xi Jinping of not having “a democratic bone in his body.” The devout Catholic has no compassion for autocrats and dictators. No word of advocacy for North Korea would change his mind about the Pyongyang regime’s oppression of its people.
Fortunately for Moon, Biden appears to be tilting towards more pragmatic diplomacy. While waging an all-out war over microchips and other elements of high tech, Biden seeks cooperation on climate change, the pandemic and other common global values with China. He also has been trying to restore ties with traditional democratic allies that were wrecked by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden even sought advice from Trump’s special envoy on North Korea to craft a policy entirely different from the failed approaches of Clinton, Barack Obama and Trump.
The White House heralded a clear-eyed and realistic approach as opposed to Trump’s so-called grand bargain — and a more aggressive approach than Obama’s “strategic patience” — to seek “incremental progress” in the journey to denuclearization. Biden’s State Secretary Antony Blinken advises Pyongyang that “the ball is in your court” to choose the practical diplomatic approach.
There is a simple way for Moon to have a successful trip to Washington. He must proclaim that South Korea is a free democracy that values human rights and peace even as it lives next to a die-hard communist state. Those kind of shared values will reassure the U.S. in its goal of complete denuclearization of North Korea through diplomatic channels and also help restore the relationship with Japan. I hope Moon speaks for the entire South Korean population in Washington, not a certain group of people.