North Korea Strategy Tops Agenda at Biden-Moon Summit Friday

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to make a last-ditch attempt to bring the U.S. and North Korea together under his watch when he meets Joe Biden at the White House on Friday, trying to revive dormant nuclear talks in his final year in office.

But Pyongyang, which has displayed disdain for both leaders, has shown no interest in their diplomacy. That raises the stakes for the Friday summit as Moon tries to find fresh enticements to lure his neighbor back to table and the Biden administration undertakes a new strategy to end a nuclear program it sees as a serious threat to America and the world.

North Korea Strategy Tops Agenda at Biden-Moon Summit Friday

A key part of Biden’s foreign policy has been turning to allies for support in addressing the security risks posed by the likes of China and North Korea, trying to mend relations strained by his predecessor Donald Trump and placing a greater emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region. The summit with Moon is emblematic of that, being Biden’s second White House meeting with a foreign leader since coming to office, after an April summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

But persistent troubles in the Middle East have flared up and the violence between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip could be a distraction for the summit where the focus is supposed to be on North Korea.

Moon left Wednesday for the five-day visit and was expected to seek U.S. cooperation on Covid-19 vaccines, aiming to step up production at home. Biden has been looking for help from South Korea’s advanced semiconductor industry for chips as Washington seeks to secure supply chains in its trade battles with China. Biden and Moon will hold a joint press briefing on Friday.

Moon is likely to visit an SK Innovation plant in Atlanta on Saturday, according to his office, while the chairman of the SK Group, Chey Tae-won, was part of the contingent accompanying Moon. Ford Motor Co. and SK Innovation Co. are poised to announce Thursday they’ve reached an agreement to jointly build electric-vehicle batteries in the U.S., according to people familiar with the deal who asked not to be identified.

In what might be a conciliatory gesture, the Biden administration appears willing to accede to a denuclearization agreement reached between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a historic 2018 summit in Singapore. Moon helped bring the two leaders together and has been looking for Biden’s backing of the pact that Seoul sees as a launching point for future discussions.

The Singapore summit resulted in a bare-bones declaration that included a call for the two sides “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But the U.S. and North Korea never agreed on what they meant by “denuclearization” and the accord resulted in no tangible steps for Kim to wind down his arsenal, which only became larger and more lethal.

A senior U.S. official told reporters that the Biden administration was looking to build on not only the Singapore agreement, but other agreements made by previous administrations. The official said the U.S. believed nuclear negotiations would be challenging and Biden -- in contrast to his predecessor -- wasn’t orienting his diplomatic effort around achieving a grand bargain.

The official, who asked not to be identified as a condition of participation in the briefing, sought to play down the likelihood the meeting would result in a splashy new North Korea announcement. While the leaders would consult on the best path forward, the White House doesn’t expect to publicly detail changes to its diplomatic strategy, the official said.

Instead, the U.S. looks eager to highlight other elements, including a push for better collaboration amid a global semiconductor shortage, the official said. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is expected to hold a meeting with South Korean Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Moon Sung-wook on supply chain issues.

Moon is slated to attend the Medal of Honor ceremony for Korean War veteran Ralph Puckett, Jr., becoming the first foreign head of state to participate in the awarding of the highest decoration for U.S. servicemembers.

The Biden administration has indicated it may be ready to ease some sanctions in exchange for steps by Kim to freeze, cap and wind down his nuclear arsenal. That could help the North Korean leader fix an economy that has only shrunk since he took power about a decade ago.

Moon has said he wants to use the final year of his single, five-year term to reach an “irreversible peace” on the Korean Peninsula, but his role as a bridge between the U.S. and North Korea has waned.

North Korea froze out Moon as talks with Trump faltered. This month it released a 151-page photo book of Kim’s diplomatic achievements where Moon was conspicuously absent, despite three summits with Kim.

“From Kim Jong Un’s point of view, while Moon may not be able to play a pivotal role in US-North Korea diplomacy, he may be able to steer the Biden administration in a direction that would be more palatable to Kim,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center.

North Korea Strategy Tops Agenda at Biden-Moon Summit Friday

Kim has turned up pressure early on Biden, starting 2021 by saying he wanted to develop more advanced nuclear technologies. In March, he test-fired ballistic missiles for the first time in a year and more launches could be coming soon.

“Kim Jong Un continues to rebuff South Korea and perceives a new U.S. administration as an opportunity to negotiate, but is prepared to take provocative and coercive steps with long-range missile tests or possibly even demonstrate its nuclear capability,” General Paul LaCamera, the nominee to lead U.S. Forces Korea, said in his written response to questions from Senate Armed Services Committee members this week.

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