Beyond webinar diplomacy

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Beyond webinar diplomacy

Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.


I am probably not alone in having a love-hate relationship with webinars, especially those that connect me with people in Korea and all the other places I have not been able to visit for the past year. I can’t imagine going through the Covid-19 pandemic-induced isolation without them. I have come to appreciate how, in the on-line world, far-flung, diverse voices can transcend geography and time zones to be pulled into one conversation. But as I stare into my computer screen and try to remember when to mute and unmute myself, I strain to mitigate the alienating distance of the digitized relationship.

A common theme of webinars over the past two weeks has been President Joe Biden’s first hundred days in office, which he marked on April 28 with a speech to Congress. The “hundred days” construct is an artificial one, but since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first hundred days has been regarded as a time when a new President demonstrates what he can get done, and sets the tone for his tenure. President Biden came to office facing the most severe challenges of any president since FDR; his focus has been heavily on addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery.

I joined several webinars with Korea-based colleagues to discuss Biden’s first hundred days-plus — and what they portend — in the context of U.S.-Korea relations. The overarching priority of repairing and reinvigorating U.S. alliances and partnerships, especially in the context of heightened U.S.-China competition, was underscored by Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin making their first official trip together to Tokyo and Seoul, and by the invitations to the Japanese and South Korean leaders to the first two in-person summits hosted by President Biden in Washington. The outline of a substantive if difficult agenda for the May 21 Biden-Moon summit is taking shape.

On trade and economic issues, in a change from the two previous administration changes in the U.S. (Obama and Trump), renegotiating the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is not on the agenda. That is welcome news. But a lot of other issues with deep implications for U.S.-Korea relations are. The White House and its new U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai played a strikingly activist role in resolving the dispute between SK Innovation and LG Energy Solution that had implications for their U.S. investments in lithium battery plants. At the World Trade Organization, Ambassador Tai announced the U.S. was changing its position to one of support for negotiating a waiver of patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines. The “Semi-Conductor Summit” on April 12 and the “Climate Change Summit” on April 22, both hosted by President Biden, highlight other areas ripe for U.S.-Korea cooperation.

The Biden administration’s emphasis on multilateralism presents opportunities and challenges for South Korea. This area too is deeply intertwined with the geopolitics of a more assertive China, doubts about U.S. commitment, and heightened great power competition. In ways that Washington has been slow to notice, Seoul is already adjusting, including by raising its profile not only in Southeast Asia but in Europe and elsewhere. Following the London meeting of the three foreign ministers, Washington will continue to call for trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan cooperation; it may be an uphill push given the political climate in both countries. The greatest potential gap, however, may be over the nature and future of the “Quad,” the informal but increasingly important grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India, and whether and how South Korea relates to or participates with it.

As for North Korea, we have the outlines of the U.S. policy review, which has explicitly tried to strike a middle ground between the (somewhat caricatured) Obama and Trump approaches. The Biden administration’s expressed readiness to build on the Singapore agreement, and explicit readiness for dialogue with Pyongyang, lay the groundwork for discussion between President Biden and Moon at their May 21 meeting, including on when and whether North Korea might be ready to negotiate.

So, as we mark President Biden’s one hundred days in office — his baek-il — things are looking up, but the work is only starting. The United States has survived its most serious political crisis since the Civil War. We — and the world — still face existential challenges that require global leadership and action. The U.S. and Korea remain natural partners, with shared interests and values, and complementary capabilities. But we must understand each other better, and communicate more. Webinars alone are not enough. Welcome to Washington, President Moon.
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