Allies Can Find New Breakthrough to Stalled Peace Process
A summit is the zenith of diplomacy. One will be held between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden on May 21. This summit will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders. South Koreans have great expectations that the summit will lead to a new breakthrough in the stalled Korean situation and strengthen bilateral alliance ties.
However, conservative observers in Seoul are pessimistic, citing fractures in the alliance, divergent perspectives on the North Korean nuclear problem, and a precarious balancing of diplomacy between Beijing and Washington. This anxiety, however, seems baseless on several accounts.
I do not see any rupture in the alliance system. As the Biden administration shifts its alliance policy from the Trumpian transactional approach to consultation and mutual respect, the ROK-U.S. alliance has only been further strengthened. Defense cost-sharing was a thorny issue during the Trump administration, but it was resolved when Seoul agreed to increase its contribution by 13.9 percent in 2021, and afterwards, Seoul will proportionally adjust its contribution according to annual increases in the defense budget until 2025.
Washington willingly accepted the offer. Both sides agreed to renew negotiations on defense cost-sharing every five years, while maintaining the existing framework of three categories ― labor cost sharing, ROK-funded construction and logistics cost sharing ― without any new categories added for cost calculations. As a result, defense cost-sharing is no longer an issue.
Transfer of wartime operational control remains unresolved. Whereas the Moon government may want to complete the transfer during its tenure, namely by May 2022, the American government thinks that this timeline is premature.
Seoul and Washington are making efforts to certify operational capability of the Future Combined Forces Command (F-CFC), as part of the conditions of wartime operational control transition, through the three phases of: initial operational capability (IOC), full operational capability (FOC) and full mission capability (FMC).
The IOC phase has been satisfied, but the second phase has not been fully implemented because of scaled-down joint military exercises and training caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Moon government may not insist on completing the transfer by the end of its term, and thus, it may not be part of the summit agenda.
President Moon's top priority will be close policy coordination with President Biden on North Korea. Seoul has been perplexed because the Biden administration continues to send conflicting signals, ranging from hardline maximum pressure, diplomacy and negotiation, to stable management through deterrence. The Moon government was equally concerned about the relatively low priority given to the North Korea issue in Biden's foreign policy agenda.
However, this worry too has very much been resolved. On April 30, the Biden administration announced the completion of its policy review on North Korea. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden approach to North Korea "will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience" and that U.S. policy will pursue "a phased agreement that leads to full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
The U.S. is likely to pursue a calibrated, practical, and phased approach to North Korea, while honoring the Singapore Declaration on June 12, 2018, in which then-President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un pledged to normalize relations, work toward a permanent peace regime in Korea and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula completely. Such an approach is what the Moon government had wanted. The scheduled summit will easily find common ground on the North Korea issue.
Nevertheless, some unresolved issues could prevent North Korea from returning to dialogue with the U.S. First is the Biden administration's emphasis on human rights, which Pyongyang perceives as an explicit sign of a hostile policy. It will be extremely difficult for the U.S. to make progress on denuclearization while pushing the human rights issue.
Second, the Biden administration will be appointing a special envoy for North Korean human rights soon, but it does not have any plan to appoint a special representative to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. This move will certainly send a negative signal to Pyongyang, further delaying the resumption of dialogue.
Finally, although the Biden administration has underscored a "practical and flexible" approach, it has stopped short of revealing any concrete plans involving the relaxation of sanctions in return for halting and reducing nuclear/missile activities. Moon is likely to raise these issues at the summit.
The China question will be another important issue on the agenda. Contrary to widespread media speculation that Biden will push Moon hard to choose sides at the summit, the U.S. will be more prudent because it understands the complexities that underlie such a choice.
Edgard Kagan, senior director in charge of Korea at the National Security Council, recently stated that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue ― also known as the Quad (involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia) ― being an informal group, is "neither a security alliance nor an Asian NATO."
Thus, the issue of South Korea joining the Quad is not likely to be dealt with at the summit. Instead of specifically targeting China, Moon will seek close cooperation with the U.S. in the areas of climate change, the pandemic, investments, science and technology and supply chains. He may also concur with Biden on the importance of rule-governed behavior and universal human rights, in general terms.
Given all of the above and more, I do not expect any disappointing news to come from the May 21 summit, although some media watchers may wish to construe some developments otherwise. I expect that the two leaders will reach a mutually beneficial and future-oriented joint statement that will reconfirm and strengthen the ironclad ROK-U.S. bilateral alliance.
This commentary was first published in the Korea Times newspaper.
About the Author
Chairman of the Sejong Institute and distinguished professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul; Special Adviser to the ROK President for Unification and National Security Affairs
Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy
The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond. Read more