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Summit opens new chapter in alliance

By Park Jin

The summit between Presidents Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden has reinvigorated and globalized the ROK-U.S. alliance on the security, economy, technology and health fronts, while both sides also agreed to pursue the inter-Korean "peace process" envisioned by Seoul. It's a surprising outcome that could transform the uneasy alliance into a global partnership.

It is noteworthy that the two leaders mentioned peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, for the first time in the history of the ROK-U.S. summit, despite China's concerns. The Washington summit also touched upon freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea, an issue that Seoul has been cautious to speak about, in order not to discomfort Beijing. The two presidents thus stood on the same side regarding sensitive regional security issues, in response to any coercive actions from China.

The joint statement also stressed "open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism," including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, a network of quadrilateral cooperation between countries in the Indo-Pacific. Seoul has been reluctant to participate in the network, which includes the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, again out of concerns about China's potential negative reaction. But the summit has left open the possibility of Seoul's future participation in Quad activities, particularly in the areas of COVID-19 response and climate change, and in cooperation with the ASEAN countries.

President Moon pledged to cooperate with President Biden to oppose "all activities" undermining, destabilizing or threatening the rules-based international order for maintaining an "inclusive, free, and open Indo-Pacific." This pledge amounts to a strategic vision shared by Korea and the U.S. as the "linchpin" for stability and prosperity in the region.

The summit, therefore, signified a visible shift of Korea's foreign and security policy toward a closer strategic partnership between the two allies, despite the Moon government's penchant for "balancing diplomacy" between the U.S. and China. At face value, the Washington summit opened a "new chapter" in the alliance, as was described in the joint statement.

The question remains, however, as to whether the Moon government, whose term will end in less than a year, will be willing and able to abide by its summit pledges while avoiding diplomatic and economic friction with China.

The joint statement also underscored the "fundamental importance" of ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation in order to meet common challenges. Relations between Korea and Japan have worsened under the Moon and Suga governments, due to historic, territorial, commercial, military and environmental issues.

Nevertheless, a Korea-Japan partnership remains indispensable to safeguarding peace and stability in the region, and to holding in check the aggressive behavior of North Korea. To protect the two countries' shared interests, common values and rules-based order, pragmatic dialogues between Korea and Japan should be reinstated. In that sense, a behind-the-scenes mediating role for the U.S. can facilitate Korea-Japan communication and encourage trilateral cooperation among the three countries.

In the area of economy, technology and biosecurity, a comprehensive ROK-U.S. partnership has been forged based on critical and emerging technologies. The two leaders agreed to deepen collaboration to tackle the "climate crisis" by reducing carbon emissions, contributing to "climate finance," and increasing the resiliency of the global supply chain, prioritizing semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries, strategic and critical materials as well as pharmaceuticals.

The leading Korean conglomerates, such as Samsung, Hyundai, SK and LG, have committed direct investments totaling nearly $40 billion to produce chips and batteries, as well as to develop a "future-oriented partnership" in the areas of clean energy and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and 6G. This investment will create tens of thousands of job opportunities in the U.S. The Korean media depicted it as an "economic alliance," which will be bolstered by the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) as a model.

The alliance will also strengthen its partnership in civil space exploration, science and aeronautics research, as well as promote cooperation in overseas nuclear markets, including joint participation in nuclear power projects. South Korea has signed the Artemis Accords, an ambitious lunar exploration project, led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as the 10th country to do so.

South Korea also possesses advanced technologies to build the world's top-level nuclear reactors, such as the APR-1400 model, and is developing small modular reactors (SMRs), while strictly complying to nonproliferation principles. The bilateral "technological alliance" between Korea and the U.S., therefore, holds tremendous potential.

With regards to public health security, the two leaders agreed to establish a "Korea-U.S. Global Vaccine Partnership" to cope with infectious diseases and to increase the manufacturing of vaccines for the benefit of other countries around the globe, especially through COVAX.

Although Korea itself currently is in urgent need of vaccine supplies sufficient to cover its 52 million population, this new vaccine partnership with the U.S. will enhance Korea's role to become a "vaccine production hub" for large-scale manufacturing in Asia to contribute to the global COVID-19 vaccine supply, based on the protection of intellectual property and technological licensing agreements with the U.S. This partnership will practically create a "vaccine alliance" between the two countries.

President Biden's offer to provide surplus American vaccines to the service members of the ROK military is a timely gesture of goodwill and friendship.

Concerning North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile threats, the Biden administration's new "calibrated and practical approach," relying on "diplomacy and dialogue," presents fresh opportunities for both North and South Korea. For the goal of disarming the North, Washington has apparently chosen a careful and flexible approach between the "strategic patience" of the Obama administration and the "grand bargain" of the Trump era to aim for the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

So, the stage is set for Washington's exploratory diplomacy with Pyongyang. The ball is now in North Korea's court. The Biden team might take a cautious "bottom-up" approach based on a concrete and reciprocal roadmap. Whether this renewed approach by Washington will produce any "tangible progress" toward denuclearization depends on the critical decision by the Kim Jong-un regime.

The North Korean nuclear issue remains unresolved, despite policy alternating between confrontation and negotiation. If it cannot be resolved in the near term, it should be coherently managed in the longer term based on deterrence, sanctions, incentives and persuasion.

Finally, the two leaders agreed to improve the human rights situation in North Korea in tandem with necessary humanitarian aid. Human rights are essential moral issues and universal values that should not be neglected for the sake of pursuing an inter-Korean detente.


Park Jin (parkjin916@naver.com) is a lawmaker of the conservative main opposition People Power Party. He chairs the party's special committee on diplomacy and security and previously served as president of the Korea-America Association.




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