President Biden has to be happy with the headlines that came out of his first two meetings with foreign leaders.
On April 16, Biden met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and the two expressed a united front on standing up to China. Then on May 21, Biden met South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who would be the other big piece to the Northeast Asian security puzzle, and secured headline-grabbing commitments on high-tech investment, North Korea, Taiwan, and vaccine cooperation.
From a political point of view, the meetings were huge successes for Biden. The joint statement between the United States and the Republic of Korea “emphasize[d] the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” as did the U.S.-Japan statement. That, and the talk about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, puts forth the impression that Biden’s attempt to use allies to put pressure on China is yielding results.
To be sure, it is the first time South Korea has ever expressed concern about Taiwan in a joint statement made with the U.S. For that matter, it was also the first time in 52 years that Japan had done so. That’s not nothing, but the statements are still just words — vague and unenforceable words that the Moon Jae-in administration would certainly shirk from if the time came to act.
Moon has shied away from defending human rights or taking on China since day one. He came to power in 2017 after campaigning against the deployment of the American-made THAAD missile defense system after China pressured his country to scrap it, and one of his first moves in office was to agree with China not to deploy any new American missile systems.
As the Choson Ilbo’s Joo Hee-yeon put it, Moon had “virtually turned away from” Taiwan for the first four years of his presidency. And it’s likely he’s doing just that again now that the ink is dry and he’s safely on the ground in Seoul with his vaccine bounty.
The statements made to put Korea more rhetorically in line with the U.S. seemed to have been done under pressure. One member of Moon’s party in the Assembly even called for Korea to send a delegation to China to explain away their stance. While the Korean public is increasingly concerned about Chinese ambitions, Moon’s Democratic Party is still attempting to appease both China and the U.S.
Moon hasn’t even been willing to support human rights for his oppressed brethren in North Korea. He’s the first South Korean president since 2008 not to co-sponsor a U.N. resolution on human rights abuses in North Korea. Even after multiple aggressive acts by the regime there, including new missile tests and the murder of a South Korean fisheries official, and transparent signals by North Korea that it refuses to negotiate, Moon is still trying to grovel back to the table to put more concessions on the line for Kim Jong-un. He sees the election of Biden as a good opportunity to restart.
Moon was desperate to get the U.S. to support his flailing push for more fruitless talks with North Korea and to help solve his vaccine woes. Having failed to secure enough vaccines early on, now Moon’s Korea has had to block new reservations for the Pfizer vaccine in the face of a shortage.
Moon secured part of his goal. He did leave Washington with the commitment that the U.S. would provide vaccines for all 550,000 active duty Korean troops — about 1% of Korea’s population — and a deal to produce Moderna’s mRNA vaccine at Samsung Biometric’s facilities. But he did not come away with the larger vaccine-sharing deal some Koreans had been hoping for.
In exchange, Korean conglomerates have promised to invest $39.5 billion in high-tech American manufacturing. That promise is being sold as a way to put the supply of semiconductors back in American and allied hands and to get Korea less reliant on China.
But the headline number is misleading. In fact, only about $20 billion of it is going into semiconductors. The rest, including $14 billion from an LG/SK partnership, is going into electric vehicle batteries. Biden apparently has a thing for driving around in EV pickup trucks in front of cameras, but his personal hobby horse doesn’t do much to enhance American tech supremacy.
And while the text of the joint statements agreed to by both Japan and South Korea is quite similar in their language, Korea’s unwillingness to work with Japan would prevent any practical cooperation from taking place. Since Moon took office, relations between the ROK and Japan have plummeted to their worst levels in decades.
The diplomatic row, trade war, and threats to intelligence sharing between America’s two Asian treaty allies have been primarily the fault of the Korean side and Moon Jae-in in particular. As Moon was cozying up to China, while ignoring Korean War history and present reality, he was, on the other hand, undermining his nation’s relations with Japan by constantly bringing up historical controversies stemming from Japan’s occupation of Korea between 1905 and 1945.
Moon called for canceling the 2015 agreement between Korea and Japan to compensate surviving “comfort women” and resolve the issue “finally and irreversibly” that was negotiated by his predecessor. After a policy review, Moon declined to terminate the agreement, but yet he has still refused to actually implement it. He has still brought up the decades-old crime committed by the Empire of Japan in ways that stifle modern day cooperation.
When not focusing on comfort women, Moon and Korea have highlighted other historical controversies, such as allegations of forced labor. A 2018 Korean court ruling calling for Mitsubishi to pay some Koreans over the claims led to both countries removing the other from their white lists for export and import of critical tech materials.
Now Tony Blinken and the Biden administration seem to have the fantasy that they can resolve Korea’s dispute with Japan. Where have we heard that before?
In 2015, when Blinken was deputy secretary of state under President Obama, he hailed the comfort women deal as “a historic agreement.” He said at a Brookings Institution event that “[t]heir courageous statecraft has helped create space for a continued process of healing and reconciliation and opened the door to greater bilateral and trilateral collaboration.” He waxed poetic about the “trilateral partnership” he thought he was helping to build.
So much for that. When South Korea undermined the agreement shortly after its promulgation — first in the form of activist groups protesting outside of Japan’s consulates, then, under Moon, from the government itself — Blinken did nothing to try to get Korea back in compliance.
Blinken is not the only failed retread Biden has brought back. His administration is full of them. Just in time for the Moon summit, he announced his appointment of Sung Kim as special envoy to North Korea. Kim seems like a perfectly decent man with a respectable career in diplomacy. The only problem is that he didn’t get much done in terms of denuclearizing North Korea from 2014 to 2016 when he held the exact same position.
So we’re back where we were in 2015. Biden is back in the White House with his old pals, but half a decade older. Moon is pulling himself up to try to get back in the ring with Kim. No one has learned anything from the past few years.
They held a nicely choreographed meeting, and they put much consideration into the words in their statements. But that all falls apart when the real events start happening. If you put the same people in the same positions and pursue the same policies, it’s not going to yield any different results.