May 24, 2021

Asia

SOUTH KOREA/US: Biden-Moon summit produces deliverables

BY Victor Cha

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( 4 mins)
  • The US-South Korea summit between presidents Biden and Moon on 21 May produced a series of agreements that invest in new dimensions of the alliance, including vaccine production.
  • South Korean conglomerates announced major investment plans (semiconductor chips, lithium batteries and electric vehicles) in the US in conjunction with the summit.
  • As for North Korea, there were no announcements of new diplomatic initiatives.

On vaccine diplomacy, the two leaders announced a new vaccine partnership that marries US technology with South Korea’s bioscience production capacity for vaccine distribution in Asia. Samsung Biologics’ agreement with Moderna, signed a day after the presidential summit, could bring vaccine supplies online by the end of the calendar year, thereby greatly aiding South Korea’s goal to become a global vaccine hub (it already produces Astra Zeneca, Novavax, and Sputnik V vaccines). While Biden also agreed to provide 550,000 vaccines for South Korean military troops given the close working relationship with US forces in Korea, Moon still remains political vulnerable over the shortfall of vaccines in Q2 which may complicate his pledge to achieve herd immunity by November. In follow-up meetings, South Korea may push the US for a vaccine swap with a promise to “repay” with expected surpluses from acquired and newly produced supplies at the end of the calendar year.

South Korean conglomerates announced major investment plans in the US in conjunction with the summit. This includes semiconductor chips (Samsung); lithium batteries (SK and LG); and electric vehicles (Hyundai-Kia). These plans reflect important and novel steps forward in the dialogue between Seoul and Washington on supply chain resiliency, something Seoul has been reluctant to embrace as openly as members of the Quad. Biden was unable to extract from Moon outright support for the newly formed grouping, but between vaccine diplomacy and these investments, the US is cultivating Seoul’s de-facto support.

In the area of nuclear energy, the two leaders agreed to cooperate more closely in commercial sales of small modular reactors in third markets. The most likely target of this collaboration in the near term is Saudi Arabia, but there is potential in other markets including the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic. This should provide some help to Korea’s sagging civil nuclear energy industry, which has been devastated by the Moon government’s anti-nuclear policies.

With regard to alliance defense and security, Moon and Biden reaffirmed strong ties by recounting the successful conclusion of a six-year cost sharing agreement that had remained unresolved during Trump’s presidency, but the most significant measure was an agreement to terminate the missile guidelines for South Korea. This will now allow Korea to develop ballistic missiles ranging longer than 850 kilometers. Moon described this agreement as regaining “missile sovereignty.” It is unclear how North Korea will respond to future plans by Seoul to deploy longer range ballistic missiles. It is also unclear how China will respond given that the US-Korea agreement does not violate the “Three No’s” agreement between South Korea and China over THAAD, but longer-range South Korean ballistic missiles will bolster US missile defense capabilities in the region.

Biden’s effort to incorporate Moon more closely into his coalitional diplomacy in the region was evident in the inclusion of statements on Taiwan, Free and Open Indo-Pacific, Burma, and supply chains in the summit’s documents and press statements, but efforts by Washington to elicit a stronger direct statement on China were unsuccessful. This is because Moon’s advisors fear economic retaliation by Beijing and feel that they need Xi Jinping’s cooperation on peninsular issues. Nevertheless, China has already reacted negatively to the Biden-Moon joint statement’s inclusion of a discussion on Taiwan, and Moon may seek some palliative measures with Beijing in the summit’s aftermath.

Finally, the two leaders spent a good deal of time on the North Korea issue; however, aside from reaffirmation of close coordination and the naming of the US senior diplomat (Sung Kim) as the point person, there were no announcements of new diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, the appointment of Ambassador Kim, a key figure in the two previous US administrations’ North Korea diplomacy signals the opposite of the Biden policy review’s proclamation that Biden would pursue neither strategic patience (Obama), nor a grand bargain (Trump).

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