History is repeating itself in Washington.
The White House is, once again, attempting to navigate a pivot to Asia. But seemingly intractable problems in the Middle East are still drawing focus away from issues of the Indo-Pacific.
As the world watches to see if a newly announced ceasefire between Israel and Hamas will hold – following the bloodiest conflict between the two sides since 2014 – United States President Joe Biden will host his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in for an important summit that may set the tone for how the longtime allies work together for the next several months.
Moon’s visit will only be the second time Biden has hosted another world leader in-person since taking office in January. The normal flurry of visits that accompany the early weeks of a new presidency was absent this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The first, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, came last month.
Hosting Japan first – as former President Donald Trump did – and South Korea second, is a clear indication the new President and his advisers view the Asia Pacific region as their biggest long-term priority overseas.
Biden’s secretaries of state and defense have already visited both Tokyo and Seoul. Military leaders from the three countries met in Hawaii in late April. And White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan hosted his Japanese and South Korean counterparts shortly before that.
“The fact that they are here tomorrow, that it’s a full bilateral program, makes clear the importance of that strategic relationship,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.
That’s not to say the meetings with Moon will necessarily be easy: South Korea and the US have several different domestic and geopolitical priorities at the moment, and the longtime allies don’t always agree.
Moon needs more Covid-19 vaccines for his country as it struggles to inoculate its population, while Washington needs Seoul’s help in pressuring China on areas of mutual concern, like human rights and trade.
The Financial Times reported that Biden will attempt to get Moon to take a tougher line on China, but South Korea may be hesitant to do so. Beijing is Seoul’s most important trading partner and has in recent years used its economic heft to punish South Korea for political decisions it does not like.
Moon is also likely to push Biden to continue reaching out to North Korea so the sides can find a diplomatic solution to reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and formally ending the Korean War. A senior administration official said Thursday that Biden will spend a “significant” amount of time discussing North Korea with Moon, but the US President has previously signaled he is not necessarily keen to continue Trump’s more open policy toward Pyongyang.
Japan and South Korea were deeply involved in the White House’s North Korea policy review process, which was completed a few weeks ago. The Biden administration said it is open to diplomacy with North Korea and plans to pursue a “calibrated, practical approach” that differs from the Trump administration’s strategy of pursuing a grand bargain or the Obama administration’s focus on “strategic patience.”
Moon’s communications director, Jung Man-ho, said South Korea supported this new “pragmatic and flexible” plan.
However, the clock is ticking. This may be Moon’s last shot at a deal with the US and North Korea before his sole five-year term ends next year, meaning his ambitious agenda for peace on the Korean Peninsula will likely go unfilled, at least during his tenure. Though Moon said during a speech this month to mark his fourth year in office that he will “not be pressed by time or become impatient during the remainder of my term,” he argued that “the time for long deliberations is also coming to an end. It is time to take action.”
“If there is an opportunity to restart the clock of peace and advance the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, I will do everything I can,” he said.
The White House has made overtures to the North Korean government, but those have apparently gone unanswered. Two sources told CNN the Biden administration is open to sharing coronavirus vaccines and other humanitarian assistance to help North Korea combat the deadly pandemic because it’s believed the North Koreans won’t be ready to engage with the US until the threat from the pandemic has passed.
North Korea has, so far, gone to extreme measures to keep the pandemic from overwhelming its dilapidated health care system. Foreign diplomats and aid workers have fled en masse due to shortages of goods and “unprecedented” restrictions on daily life imposed to stop the spread of coronavirus, according to the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang. North Korea also announced its athletes would not compete in the Olympics or World Cup qualifiers due to the pandemic.
Whether Pyongyang will be open to resuming dialogue when the pandemic recedes remains unclear, but statements from the country earlier this month could signal that roadblocks remain.
North Korea warned the United States it will face a “crisis beyond control in the near future” earlier this month in response Biden saying its nuclear program presents “a serious threat to America’s security and world security,” remarks the country’s foreign ministry said were a “big blunder” indicative of an “outdated policy from Cold War-minded perspective and viewpoint.”
Then again, Trump threatened nuclear destruction and called Kim Jong Un “rocket man” before he agreed to a historic summit with the North Korean leader, so both sides are likely aware fiery rhetoric is often just that.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Kylie Atwood, Jake Kwon and Oren Liebermann contributed to this report