U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in issued a new urgency on Friday to try to engage North Korea’s nuclear arms dialog with Biden saying that under the right conditions, it would meet with its leader Kim Jong Un.
Biden and Moon said their aim was the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Biden stressing that he was “under no illusion” of North Korea’s difficulty in renouncing its nuclear arsenals following failure of its predecessors.
“We both are deeply concerned about the situation,” Biden said at a joint news conference, adding that he and Moon shared a willingness to engage diplomatically with the North and “to take pragmatic steps to reduce tensions.”
North Korea has rebuffed U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with Kim and famously exchanged “beautiful letters” with the third-generation leader.
Kim refused to give up his nuclear weapons but did impose a freeze on testing them. He has not tested a nuclear bomb nor launched an inter-continental ballistic missile since 2017, although experts believe his arsenal has steadily grown.
Biden said he would be willing to meet Kim under the right conditions – if he agreed to discuss his nuclear program and that his advisers first met with their North Korean counterparts to lay the groundwork.
“I would not do what had been done in the recent past; I would not give him all he’s looking for – international recognition as legitimate and allow him to move in the direction of appearing to be more … serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about.”
Biden’s comments appeared to reflect a shift in his thinking given that the White House said in March it was not his intention to meet with Kim.
Biden appointed veteran State Department official Sung Kim as special U.S. envoy for North Korea.
South Korea had been pushing for the appointment of an envoy, and Moon, for whom engagement with North Korea is a legacy issue before he leaves office next year, said Sung Kim would help explore whether North Korea is willing to engage diplomatically. He said he expected a positive response.
Sung Kim is a Korean-American diplomat who served as special envoy for North Korea under President Barack Obama and helped set up Trump’s summits with Kim Jong Un.
Jenny Town of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project, said Sung Kim’s appointment was positive after the administration had signaled it was in no hurry to fill the post.
However, it has given no indication of what concessions it might offer to bring about talks. A joint summit statement called for full implementation of international sanctions Pyongyang wants lifted.
“The problem has been that the administration has only talked about denuclearization and continues to characterize any interactions with North Korea as nuclear negotiations,” Town said. “So it’s still a tough sell to get the North Koreans back to the table, but obviously Moon is going to push very hard.”
Biden’s administration undertook a broad review of North Korea policy but has said little about what its new policy entails, beyond that it would not be Obama’s approach of refusing to engage North Korea, or Trump’s flashy summitry.
Biden and Moon reaffirmed a strong alliance after the strains created by Trump, who badgered Moon as weak and threatened to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea.
Moon was the second foreign leader – after Japan’s prime minister – to visit the White House since Biden took office in January, and Biden said their conversations were those of “old friends.”
They also discussed China and Taiwan, which has complained of repeated military pressure from Beijing.
“We’ve shared the view that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is extremely important, and we agreed to work together on that matter while considering special characteristics in relations between China and Taiwan,” Moon said.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry expressed thanks for the support, saying the island “has always played a key role in regional stability and prosperity”.
Washington was keen to see strong statements from Moon about China, but Biden was not happy to welcome multibillion dollar investments from South Korean firms in strategic sectors like microchips, in view of South Korean leaders’ concerns about upsetting their country’s largest trader.
The two countries agreed in the Summit statement to develop open and transparent telecom 5G and 6G networks and to increase the world supply of automotive chips. They also agreed to consider establishing a high-tech manufacturing supply chain task force.
Moon said, under domestic pressure over the COVID-19 pandemic, the two countries agreed to a vaccine partnership to bring US expertise into line with the capability of Korea to produce.
He said that COVID 19 vaccine in the Indo-Pacific region would be supplied while Biden said that 550,000 South-Korean soldiers would receive vaccines from the United States.
The joint report said Seoul would “considerably” strengthen its commitment to the international distribution of COVAX vaccines this year and that two countries pledged to work with other partners to create a new health security financing mechanism.