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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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