Biden meets SKorean president in bid to shore up Asia alliances

By: AFP      Published: 11:24 PM, 21 May, 2021
Biden meets SKorean president in bid to shore up Asia alliances

US President Joe Biden held talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday to underscore his strategic focus on Asia, while playing down chances of quick progress on challenges from China and North Korea.

On arrival at the White House, Moon declared that South Korea and the United States share the "same soul," forged in their bloody Cold War-era conflict with North Korea at the start of the 1950s. 

South Korea "will always stand by America on its journey of recovering from the Covid-19 crisis and defending liberal, democratic international order," Moon said at a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, before he met with Biden.

The rising power of China as a rival for leadership in Asia and the powder keg of nuclear-armed North Korea loomed over Friday's talks. The Biden administration admits it has no easy answer to either issue.

Against that backdrop, Washington's main emphasis is on rebuilding US alliances after the turbulent Donald Trump era, during which the White House often treated long-standing partners more as cutthroat business competitors.

Moon comes to Washington as Biden's second foreign guest. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who visited last month, was the first.

The US-South Korean relationship "is the linchpin of security and prosperity for northeast Asia and a free and open Indo-Pacific," said a senior White House official, who asked not to be identified.

"President Biden will reaffirm that ironclad commitment."

Symbolizing the deep, complex history behind those bonds, Moon was joining Biden in awarding the Medal of Honor -- the highest US military honor for bravery -- to a 94-year-old US veteran of the Korean War.

Then first lieutenant Ralph Puckett was wounded in 1950 while leading US and Korean soldiers in the desperate defense of a hill against an overwhelming force of Chinese troops -- an early episode in Beijing's decisive entry into the war.

The White House said this would be the first time a foreign leader has taken part in a Medal of Honor ceremony.

Complete denuclearization

Commercial ties are high on the agenda.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and her South Korean counterpart were holding separate talks involving a raft of CEOs with a focus on high-tech manufacturing -- battery technology, semi-conductors and 5G wireless.

But the bulk of the Biden-Moon meeting was likely to focus on China, including its saber-rattling around Taiwan, and on attempts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Little concrete was expected to emerge, however.

Asked if concern over the future of Taiwan would be aired, the White House official said there would be "a reference to regional security generally and maintenance of peace."

And on North Korea, which has foiled US presidents for decades, similarly vague language is likely.

"Our goals remain the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," the official said.

However, the White House says it is abandoning former attempts to reach a so-called "grand bargain" with Pyongyang or simply showing what diplomats termed "strategic patience."

Now the White House is touting "a calibrated practical approach" -- diplomatic jargon, it seems, for being realistically low-key, while open-minded.

"We understand where previous efforts in the past had difficulties and we've tried to learn from those," the official said.

Asked if Biden would consider following up Trump's headline-grabbing but ultimately fruitless summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki delivered a dry response Thursday.

"I don't expect that to be top on his agenda," she said.