North Korea strategy tops agenda at Biden-Moon summit on Friday

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to make a last-ditch attempt to bring the United States and North Korea together under his watch when he meets his American counterpart Joe Biden at the White House on Friday (May 21), trying to revive dormant nuclear talks in his final year in office.

But Pyongyang, which has displayed disdain for both leaders, has shown no interest in their diplomacy. That raises the stakes for the Friday summit as Mr Moon tries to find fresh enticements to lure his neighbour back to table and the Biden administration undertakes a new strategy to end a nuclear programme it sees as a serious threat to the US and the world.

A key part of Mr Biden’s foreign policy has been turning to allies for support in addressing the security risks posed by the likes of China and North Korea, trying to mend relations strained by his predecessor Donald Trump and placing a greater emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region.

The summit with Mr Moon is emblematic of that approach, with it being Mr Biden’s second White House meeting with a foreign leader since coming to office, following a summit last month with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

But persistent troubles in the Middle East have flared up again and the violence between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip could be a distraction for the summit where the focus is supposed to be on North Korea.

Mr Moon left Wednesday for a five-day visit to the US. Apart from talks on North Korea, and attending a Medal of Honour ceremony with Mr Biden at the White House, Mr Moon was expected to seek US cooperation on Covid-19 vaccines, aiming to step up production at home.

Mr Biden has been looking for help from South Korea’s advanced semiconductor industry for chips as Washington seeks to secure supply chains in its trade battles with China.

Mr Moon is likely to visit an SK Innovation plant in Atlanta on Saturday, according to his office, while the chairman of the sprawling SK Group, Mr Chey Tae-won, was part of the contingent accompanying the South Korean President in the US.

Ford Motor and SK Innovation are poised to announce on Thursday that they have reached an agreement to jointly build electric vehicle batteries in the US, according to sources familiar with the deal who asked not to be identified.

In what might be a conciliatory gesture, the Biden administration appears willing to accede to a denuclearisation agreement reached between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a historic 2018 summit in Singapore. Mr Moon helped bring the two leaders together and has been looking for Mr Biden’s backing of the pact that Seoul sees as a launching point for future disarmament discussions.

Mr Biden’s Asia coordinator Kurt Campbell told South Korea’s Yonhap News in a report published on Wednesday that Washington wants to build on the deal and will work for its key provision of the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

The Singapore summit resulted in a bare-bones declaration that included a call for the two sides “to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.

But the US and North Korea never agreed on what they meant by “denuclearisation” and the accord resulted in no tangible steps for Mr Kim to wind down his arsenal.

While nuclear negotiations sputtered, Mr Kim was busy adding to his stockpile of nuclear material and missiles that can deliver warheads to the US as well as Japan and South Korea, where tens of thousands of US troops are stationed.

Though the talks between Mr Trump and Mr Kim did not halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, they did lead to “reduced tension on the Korean Peninsula”, according to General Paul LaCamera, the nominee to lead US Forces Korea.

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The Biden administration has indicated it may be ready to ease some sanctions in exchange for steps by Mr Kim to freeze, cap and wind down his nuclear arsenal. That could help the North Korean leader fix an economy that has only shrunk since he took power about a decade ago.

President Moon said this month he plans to use the final year of his single, five-year term to reach an “irreversible peace” on the Korean Peninsula, but his role as a bridge between the leaders of the US and North Korea has waned.

North Korea gave Mr Moon the cold shoulder as talks with Mr Trump faltered, labelling the South Korean leader meddlesome. This month, it released a 151-page photo book of Mr Kim’s diplomatic achievements, where Mr Moon was conspicuously absent, despite holding three summits with Mr Kim and joining Mr Trump for a 2019 meeting with the North Korean leader at a truce village in the Demilitarised Zone dividing the peninsula.

“From Kim Jong Un’s point of view, while Moon may not be able to play a pivotal role in US-North Korea diplomacy, he may be able to steer the Biden administration in a direction that would be more palatable to Kim,” said Ms Rachel Minyoung Lee, a non-resident fellow with the 38 Programme at the Stimson Centre.

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Mr Kim has indicated he plans to ratchet up tensions. Earlier this year, he said he would put his country on a path to develop more advanced nuclear technologies and missiles. In March, he test-fired ballistic missiles for the first time in a year and more launches could be coming soon as the North Korean leader works to modernise his arsenal of missiles.

“Kim Jung Un continues to rebuff South Korea and perceives a new US administration as an opportunity to negotiate, but is prepared to take provocative and coercive steps with long-range missile tests or possibly even demonstrate its nuclear capability,” Gen LaCamera said in his written response to questions from lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

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