President Joe Biden is set to meet with his South Korean counterpart President Moon Jae-in on Friday, the second in-person meeting with a world leader of his presidency as he seeks to turn his foreign policy focus back to East Asia.
The meeting comes as the Biden administration has faced a foreign policy test amid an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas ending with a ceasefire Thursday. Biden has sought to deprioritize the Middle East in his overall foreign policy, viewing strategic competition with China as paramount to his administration’s goals. On Friday, he’ll return his attention to the region.
Biden welcomes Moon to the White House Friday afternoon for bilateral talks expected to center on North Korea and other areas of cooperation like trade and climate change. And they will jointly award the Medal of Honor to an American veteran of the Korean War, Army Colonel Ralph Puckett, the first time a foreign leader has participated in such a ceremony.
Puckett, the White House said in a statement, exhibited “intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” on November 25 and 26, 1950, “exposing himself to deadly enemy fire” during an attack, wounded but showing “extraordinary heroism and selflessness” as he commanded his troops.
Moon is also expected to press Biden on the shipment of Covid-19 vaccines as the administration scales up its vaccine diplomacy efforts, announcing earlier this week that the US would be sending 80 million vaccine doses abroad and scaling up its commitment to sharing vaccines.
But the heart of the talks will be on North Korea, which Biden acknowledged earlier this year remains his top foreign policy challenge. After three in-person meetings with former President Donald Trump, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un made no steps toward winding down his country’s nuclear program. Little diplomatic progress was made after a meeting in Hanoi fell apart, with the two sides in deep disagreement on how and when to lift sanctions.
“We understand where previous efforts in the past have had difficulties and we’re determined to try and learn from those past efforts to give ourselves the best chance of diplomatic success,” a senior administration official said in previewing the visit.
Biden administration officials consulted with members of the Trump administration on a new policy, which the President plans to lay out for Moon during talks on Friday.
“Our goals remain the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, with a clear understanding that the efforts of past administrations have not achieved this objective,” a senior administration official said in previewing the visit.
“Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain nor will it rely on strategic patience,” the official went on. “Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies and our deployed forces. We have and will continue to consult closely with the ROK. Both leaders will talk about that extensively.”
DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is the US government’s official name for North Korea. ROK stands for Republic of Korea, the government’s name for South Korea.
The official said the current team feels they’ve learned important lessons from past diplomatic failures with Pyongyang.
“We want to engage with our South Korean friends on the way forward. We’re not going to lay out exactly our diplomatic strategy here and now,” the official said. “We’ve tried to design it to be flexible and, as I’ve indicated, calibrated more generally. We understand where previous efforts in the past have had difficulties and we’re determined to try and learn from those past efforts to give ourselves the best chance of diplomatic success.”
Still, the official said the Singapore Agreement that Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed in 2018 can still be augmented.
“We intend to build upon the Singapore agreement but also other agreements made by previous administrations,” the official said. “At this juncture it’s really not in our interest to preview or comment on specific issues like an end of war declaration in hopes of spurring dialogue.”
The two leaders will participate in a press conference Friday evening before Moon departs. And Moon met with Vice President Kamala Harris in her ceremonial office before his meeting with Biden. Harris said they would be discussing the “strong partnership” between the two nations and the “challenges that exist on the Korean Peninsula.”
“President Joe Biden and I are confident that together, we can promote a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, a region that is unconstrained by coercion and anchored in international rules and order,” Harris said.