Memorandum for Moon’s summit
FROM: Michael Green, a JoongAng Ilbo columnist and uninvited Blue House advisor
RE: Your May 21 summit with U.S. President Joe Biden
Objectives: You will be holding your first in-person summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington at the White House on May 21. We cannot stress enough that your most important objective should be to develop a strong personal rapport with Mr. Biden. When President Kim Dae-jung held his first meeting with the newly inaugurated George W. Bush in March 2001, he thought that his most important objective was to convince the new U.S. President to engage with North Korea at a summit level. That was a major mistake. President Kim appeared overly zealous and undermined his government’s credibility in ways that made it much more difficult for pro-engagement forces within the Bush administration to advance their agenda. It was only after Presidents Bush and Kim rebooted their personal relationship in Seoul the next February that coordination on North Korea policy really moved forward.
In contrast, President Lee Myung-bak focused on developing personal trust with newly-elected Barack Obama in 2009 and so impressed Obama that the United States turned to Korea again and again to take the lead on high level multilateral summits like the G-20 while publicly backing Seoul’s North Korea policy. It may seem that with less than one year left in office you might want to seize this moment to win Biden’s commitment to an end-of-war declaration or wartime Opcon transfer and you should certainly seek common ground with Biden on these issues, but an aggressive approach might backfire and prompt the White House to delay action until a new president is elected in Korea.
Biden’s Perspective: You can feel reassured that President Biden also sees building a personal rapport as one of his most important objectives in this summit. This flows from his five-decade career as politician who legislated by building strong partnerships across the aisle. The Biden administration also wants to demonstrate to China and North Korea that the U.S.-ROK alliance is “ironclad,” as the White House press spokesperson has put it. This emphasis on strengthening alliances plays well in domestic U.S. politics since polls show that after Trump Americans now value alliances more than ever before — particularly younger Americans who are essential to the Democratic Party’s political base.
However, it is important to keep in mind that Biden is spending most of his time and political capital on his strategy to “build back better” at home after the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, historians have noted that Biden’s proposals to expand social welfare spending to over $4 trillion would represent the greatest expansion of federal reach since President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s. Biden believes in bipartisanship after the cleavages that opened in American politics in the Trump years, but his domestic agenda is not attracting any Republican support — with the exception of the “Endless Frontiers” Act on hi-tech innovation. Incumbent Presidents usually lose ground in their first mid-term (Congressional) election and many pundits think the Republicans will punish Biden for his ambitious agenda by retaking the House of Representatives in 2022. In the meantime, this means that foreign policy towards Asia is one area where Biden does have a good chance of shoring-up bipartisanship.
North Korea: The Biden administration has completed its North Korea policy review and may be ready to announce their new envoy and possibly the U.S. Ambassador to Seoul by the time you arrive in Washington. As you know (and as this columnist predicted), the U.S. approach will be neither “strategic patience” nor Trump’s “grand bargain,” focusing instead on incremental progress premised on ultimate denuclearization. Pyongyang will likely reject this approach initially, but it will be important to show U.S.-ROK-Japan solidarity if we are to get back to talks. Any obvious divisions between Seoul and Washington will only cause Pyongyang to resist returning to negotiations and will tempt China to focus on dividing the U.S.-ROK alliance rather than pressuring the North to engage in diplomacy.
China: It is important to keep in mind that strategic competition with China is a far higher priority for the administration and the Congress than North Korea diplomacy. In part this is because the administration has been alarmed at Beijing’s extremely aggressive pressure on Taiwan and neighboring states and hard authoritarian turn at home. Biden is prioritizing solidarity with allies and partners, including Europe, before getting into serious discussions with Beijing in order to demonstrate that Xi Jinping’s approach is backfiring. There are major questions in Washington on both sides of the aisle about whether your policies are undermining this effort. You should candidly share your concerns about China with President Biden and seek areas where Korea can help to reinforce a rules-based order against Chinese coercion. Much of Korea’s development, democracy and capacity-building efforts in Asia aligns with U.S., Japanese and Australian strategies and you should propose more cooperation on a bilateral and plurilateral basis.
Technology: One of the most important areas of focus in competition with China is technology, particularly as it relates to artificial intelligence. The administration and Congress are finalizing plans for investing in semiconductors and supply chains and Korea is seen as one of the most important allies in this effort. If Samsung announces its final plans for building a new semiconductor fabrication plant in the United States. this would be a huge boon for your meeting with Biden.
Global Issues: Biden will want to talk to you about climate change and the more you can pledge new plans to reduce emissions or move to zero carbon output, the better play your meeting will receive. Biden will also be inclined to help you on vaccines. The United States will probably have hundreds of millions of excess doses and was slow to respond to the India Covid crisis, but now appreciates the importance of “vaccine diplomacy” with friends and allies.
Remember, the White House has already declared that this summit will demonstrate that the U.S.-ROK alliance is “ironclad.” Keep that in the back of your mind, and you cannot go wrong.