How the Biden-Moon Summit Reset the South Korea-US Alliance

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How the Biden-Moon Summit Reset the South Korea-US Alliance

Both the U.S. and South Korea made compromises that could have long-term ramifications for the region’s geopolitical balance.

How the Biden-Moon Summit Reset the South Korea-US Alliance

In this May 21, 2021, file photo, U.S. President Joe Biden listens as South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

The summit meeting on May 21 between President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and U.S. President Joe Biden was widely seen as a success, with both sides achieving significant objectives. Moon improved South Korea’s access to COVID-19 vaccines and secured U.S. cooperation for a joint strategy on North Korea; Biden persuaded South Korea to become more involved in the United States’ broader regional strategy and also got some high-tech investment, which will create American jobs and reduce reliance on Chinese supply chains.

The U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy has been expanded beyond the military and diplomatic spheres: It now encompasses global humanitarian issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, and also technological innovation. This has allowed South Korea to accommodate U.S. policy aims without taking an explicit stance against China. Still, the summit has certainly given China pause for thought.

South Korea and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

One major outcome from the summit is that South Korea now has more freedom to decide just how it will contribute to the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, as France, Germany, and Britain are already doing. For example, on May 22, Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, set off on her maiden voyage as part of a strike group that includes U.S. ships and aircraft, and is bound for the South China Sea (SCS).

From a U.S. perspective, South Korea has been the weakest link in trying to build a united front to withstand Chinese expansionism. Indeed, during the administration of President Donald Trump, when the Indo-Pacific Strategy was explicitly represented as a regional attempt to contain China, South Korea’s reluctance to become involved led to some serious friction with the United States. Moon and Trump disagreed about various issues: how much South Korea should pay to help support United States Forces Korea (USFK), how to deal with North Korea both militarily and economically, and the extent to which USFK should play an anti-China role, whether in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or the Taiwan Strait.

Thus, before the Biden-Moon summit, it seemed entirely possible that the United States would continue to insist that South Korea must signal a readiness to move closer to a U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy all about military resistance to China. In a clear return to business-as-usual diplomacy, however, the U.S. and South Korea chose to acknowledge that although their interests do not fully coincide, there is a very significant overlap. Of course, it suited Biden to renounce the self-defeating folly of “Make America Great Again,” but it also suited Moon’s domestic political agenda to demonstrate a harmonious agreement with U.S. geopolitical strategy and to bask in the goodwill of a U.S. president. Moon is hoping that by shifting his stance on the ROK-U.S. alliance he can help maintain his party’s grip on power in next year’s presidential election.

Moon’s Agenda Signals Acceptance of Biden’s Playbook

Much of Moon’s prearranged agenda for his visit highlighted the longstanding military alliance between the United States and South Korea. This was his fourth trip to the U.S. as president, but his first time to Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to honor veterans of the Korean War. He also attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a permanent addition to the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, a Wall of Memories; and he participated in a ceremony at which a veteran of the Korean War was awarded the Medal of Honor. Moon also held meetings with leaders of Congress, during which he will surely have heard concerns expressed about his policies on North Korea and China.

A policy shift is clearly underway. Whereas Moon had previously implied that the United States was undermining his Korean Peninsula Peace Initiative and was thereby damaging South Korea’s military sovereignty and political autonomy, it appears that he now accepts Biden’s approach of discreet diplomacy and stern deterrence in dealing with North Korea. Moreover, the incoming commander of USFK spoke of cooperating more closely with U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) and Indo-Pacific Command to address regional issues in the Indo-Pacific region, and Moon now seems to have agreed with the ROK-U.S. combined forces command becoming involved with wider regional security, including the South China Sea and Taiwan. According to the joint statement issued after the summit, both countries “oppose all activities that undermine, destabilize, or threaten the rules-based international order and commit to maintaining an inclusive, free, and open Indo-Pacific.”

The ROK-U.S. Alliance and the Broadening of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

Both leaders have agreed that the essentially military ROK-U.S. alliance should be expanded into a partnership concerned with more general regional and global issues, but there are significant differences in emphasis. Biden sees the ROK-U.S. alliance at the core of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, and expects South Korea cooperate closely with other multilateral institutions, including trilateral security cooperation linking the United States, South Korea, and Japan as well as the so-called Quad Plus. Moon cannot afford to upset China, however, and it is noteworthy that the summit’s joint statement did not refer to China by name.

Predictably, China has complained that the reference to Taiwan constitutes interference in its domestic affairs, but has so far limited its response to rhetoric. This could change, however, if South Korea decides to develop long-range missiles, the longstanding limitations on South Korean missile development having now been dropped by the United States.

On the issue of North Korea, both leaders are now on the same page, or so it appears, at least. Their goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and they hope to reengage North Korea in negotiations through a calibrated, practical approach based on the Biden administration’s month-long review of North Korea policy. Biden is trying to move beyond the failures of past presidents, both Obama’s “strategic patience” and Trump’s grandstanding top-down approach. But Moon will be pleased that earlier agreements will form the basis of future discussions, specifically the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between Moon and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the Singapore Joint Statement released by Kim and Trump.

It is hoped that working level talks between the United States and North Korea will commence as soon as may be, notwithstanding recent difficulties experienced by the U.S. in its attempts to contact the North Korean leadership. It remains unclear what kind of incentives will be offered to North Korea to encourage meaningful steps toward denuclearization, but if and when talks do begin they will surely have a much lower profile, and will perhaps be secret. The appointment of Sung Kim, former U.S. ambassador to Seoul, as a special envoy to North Korea demonstrates Biden’s commitment to such negotiations.

The manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines were also discussed at the summit. It was reported that Biden declined to accept Moon’s proposal of a vaccine swap program, the idea being that the United States would supply vaccines now to alleviate the shortage in South Korea, with a similar quantity returned subsequently to the U.S. In support of the ROK-U.S. alliance, however, Biden offered to supply enough doses to vaccinate all active South Korean military forces, amounting to 550,000 personnel, to protect them and the U.S. forces with whom they work closely. In addition, Moon’s plans to make South Korea a vaccine hub for the Indo-Pacific region were boosted by contracts signed with Samsung to carry out the final stages of manufacturing the Moderna vaccine in South Korea.

Although the vaccine issue can be seen as South Korean cooperation with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, this is unlikely to trouble China. Some news which may be more problematic, however, is the commitment by several South Korean companies to invest nearly $40 billion in the United States in innovative technologies such as AI, 5G and 6G, electric vehicle batteries, and semiconductors. The U.S. is keen to reduce its reliance on Chinese supply chains, particularly for high-tech products, and South Korea would like to diversify its economic base beyond its dependence upon China. Conversely, China would prefer the status quo to continue, and has often used economic coercion in the past, for example in response to 2017 THAAD deployment on South Korean soil.

South Korean Shifts to Accommodate the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

Moon’s administration is facing sustained domestic criticism, particularly over its failed housing policies, and he is surely hoping that greater access to U.S. vaccines will reverse his political fortunes, as happened elsewhere in countries with an effective vaccination program, most notably in Britain. Biden has provided enough doses to vaccinate active military personnel, but he can claim to be protecting U.S. forces, since there are military exercises planned for August this year. These doses are a partial victory for Moon, but South Korea still lacks sufficient vaccine doses to achieve herd immunity before the end of the third quarter, after which another surge is likely. Moon was hoping for an early reengagement with North Korea to review the 2018 Singapore Agreement, but vaccines are now more significant politically, so early talks seem unlikely, given the gaps between Biden and Moon.

Biden used the summit effectively to remind Moon that the democratic freedoms enjoyed by South Koreans are reliant upon the ROK-U.S. alliance, and also on the wider U.S. role as leader of the free world and guarantor of the prevailing rules-based international order. This message was aimed at some of Moon’s left-tilting staff and ministers, and also at other nations of the region: Now is not the time to be neglecting their partnerships and military alliances with the United States on the grounds of supposed national interest. For South Korea this means that deterrence comes before diplomacy with North Korea, that combined defense postures should be restored, that OPCON transfer should not occur until the necessary conditions are met, and that the ROK-U.S. alliance should play a greater role in implementing the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The incoming commander of USFK, and simultaneously the United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command, General Paul LaCamera, during his recent confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, emphasized his war-fighting philosophy and stated his intention to restart in-person field exercises, which have been scaled back and/or held virtually since 2018. LaCamera advocated the inclusion of USFK forces and capabilities in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to support regional contingency and operational plans. He endorsed the importance of the trilateral security cooperation between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, and the need for closer engagement between USFK and U.S. Forces Japan. Some of his remarks were uncomfortable for Moon, and the timing of the confirmation hearing, just before Moon’s arrival in Washington, was a signal that he would have to cede some ground at the summit, that USFK must play a broader regional role.

It was hardly accidental that Moon was the second foreign leader to be invited to the White House, just after Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide: Biden clearly expects South Korea to step up and play a more active role in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. Though direct involvement with the Quad is not yet on the cards, there is intense pressure for South Korea to edge away from China and toward the U.S. At the summit Moon delivered the minimum extent of policy shifts acceptable to Biden’s administration, but he is walking on a tightrope. Moon could try to ease tension with Japan at the G-7 meeting in June, perhaps as a quid pro quo for more U.S. movement on North Korean engagement. Certainly South Korea’s China policy will be more closely coordinated with the United States than previously.

Moon is hoping that China will be pragmatic about South Korea’s policy shifts, and that, instead of complicating the North Korean situation, China will try to stabilize the Korean Peninsula by exerting its influence on Kim’s regime. For the time being, China’s reaction to the Biden-Moon summit has been prudent and cautious, with no obvious intention to punish South Korea through the kind of economic sanctions used over the THAAD deployment. China will understand, however, that the South Korean high-tech investments in the U.S. represent a move toward an economic decoupling between China and South Korea, though given the global importance of the Chinese economy, especially in driving growth, they may be content to wait and see how things turn out.

Finally, despite the messaging coming out of the summit, South Korea has carefully avoided the appearance of taking a military stance against China. It seems unlikely, at least for now, that the ROK-U.S. alliance will become involved in regional crises over the South China Sea or Taiwan. Thus, the South Korean navy will not join in the U.S.-led Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, nor in transits of the Taiwan Strait. In the medium and longer term, however, South Korea’s balancing act between China and the U.S. will grow ever more difficult.

What Next?

Both sides had a lot riding on this summit, and it is therefore hardly surprising that an appearance of unity was projected at the press conference, and by the joint statement. Nevertheless, Moon and Biden do seem to have succeeded in patching over their differences better than had been expected, and they both got some results that will be useful for their respective domestic political audiences.

What issues are still outstanding? It remains unclear whether and how quickly South Korea will get access to further vaccines, besides those allocated to the military. There is an expanded vision for the Indo-Pacific strategy, in which South Korea plays a bigger regional and global role, both in security terms and more generally, but is this just rhetoric or will there be some real-world changes? And the elephant in the room is still North Korea: What are the United States and South Korea actually going to do about the Kim regime? And is there really any prospect that it will be more successful than previous attempts to deal with such an intractable adversary?

Following the success of the summit, Moon and Biden can probably continue to manage their differences behind closed doors, but there is still considerable uncertainty about the future of the ROK-U.S. alliance.