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Moon Wants a Legacy on North Korea That Isn’t Coming

Biden’s tough attitude on Pyongyang is mixed with sympathy for his South Korean counterpart.

By , a journalist and author who has been covering North Korea since 1972.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during the 102nd Independence Movement Day ceremony in Seoul on March 1. Jeon Heon-Kyun/Pool/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden faces a delicate problem when he hosts his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, at the White House on May 21. The two leaders don’t see eye to eye on North Korea, and both sides are playing a masterful game to cover up the rift.

Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have said time and again that denuclearization is the endgame. They may equivocate and prevaricate on the way, but U.S. policy remains where it has always been: a rock-solid deal from Kim Jong Un to scrap his nukes and the missiles that come with them.

That’s not Moon’s main goal. On the fourth anniversary of his five-year term, he welcomed the Biden administration’s “primary goal of the Korean Peninsula’s complete denuclearization” but did not share the same priority. Rather, he and Biden would “restore dialogue” with North Korea while he did everything he could to “restart the clock of peace and advance the peace process.” He would not “be pressed by time or become impatient during the remainder of my term.” Translation: If it doesn’t happen, don’t blame me.

At the least, Moon is confident he can bring Biden around to a joint statement leaving the door open to talks. In that spirit, on the sidelines of the meeting of ministers of the G-7 nations in London last week, South Korea’s foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong, met with Blinken and, for the first time as foreign minister, with Toshimitsu Motegi of Japan. All agreed, said South Korea’s foreign ministry, “to strengthen coordination to make substantive progress toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and building lasting peace.”

The Biden administration has to love this show of harmony at a time when the historic Korea-U.S. alliance is emerging from the rough patch of former President Donald Trump’s threats against allies and alternating threats and footsie with Kim. But underneath it all, Biden and Moon are playing a tough bargaining game in polite language designed to conceal the hard edges.

The United States has at least the legacy of Trump, who spoke scathingly of Moon, doubted the need for the alliance, and tried to get South Korea to pay an outrageous $5 billion a year for hosting 28,500 U.S. troops on bases in the country. “It is a wonder that the U.S.-ROK alliance survived Donald Trump,” said David Straub, a former senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “It did so only because most South Koreans want it and because the U.S. ‘deep state’—not to mention all American presidents before Trump from Truman on—felt it was an essential American strategic and moral obligation.”

The chasm between Biden and Moon, however, is deep. “For months President Moon has been pushing the United States to offer concessions to North Korea to get the North to return to the negotiating table, with a particular focus on sanctions relief,” said Bruce Bennett, a longtime Korea watcher at the Rand Corp. Biden’s promise of a “stern deterrence” to North Korea and the White House’s spurning of a “grand bargain” are not likely to make Moon happy. Or, as Bennett put it, “This does not preclude negotiations with North Korea, but the negotiations with North Korea are apparently no longer the U.S. focus and no longer driving U.S. policy.”

To be sure, U.S.-South Korean relations have improved since the two agreed in March on South Korea forking over about $1 billion this year for U.S. troops and bases in the country. But Moon’s initial hopes of a truly independent foreign policy have diminished as the glow comes off his presidency.

Moon rode a wave of populism in the snap election for president four years ago after the impeachment and jailing of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee. At the time Moon seemed invincible. His popularity rating soared to 60 percent, while the conservatives battled for survival. In recent polling, however, Moon’s popularity has fallen below 30 percent, while the conservatives made up lost ground in recent mayoral elections. The obvious reasons are corruption scandals and the soaring price of real estate, but Koreans are also showing distaste for Moon tilting at the windmill of North-South reconciliation while the North closes up during the pandemic and Kim warns of poverty similar to that of the “arduous march” of the 1990s, when as many as 2 million people died of starvation.

“Moon is very nervous about his poor performance with less than a year in office,” said Choi Jin-wook, the president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul. “His only hope is a dramatic turnaround in inter-Korean relations. His North Korea policy is one of wishful thinking. He never admits his policy failed. He is still saying North Korea is giving up its nuclear weapons.”

Ideally, Moon “wants the U.S. to return to the negotiation table by making a great concession,” said Choi, “but he has to know that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons.” That’s the puzzle that Biden and his aides are sorting out as they talk about appeasing Moon, both appearing tough to Pyongyang and sending him home with a formula for perpetuating a dialogue that is unlikely to resolve anything.

Biden and his team have the skills to appear understanding and empathic as Moon battles for his own legacy as the leader who brought about reconciliation. Both sides are keenly aware that Moon has less than a year to go in his presidency, thanks to the South’s single five-year terms. Modern Korean presidents have a habit of bad ends, and Biden offers Moon a chance to avoid that.

“I’m sure the Koreans want the United States to lean forward on North Korea,” said Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. “But I really think it’s all moot without some serosity from the Kim siblings”—that is, Kim Jong Un and his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Every deal with North Korea—going back to the joint statement that South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the architect of the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation, signed with Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, at the first inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2000—began in high hopes and was dashed in recriminations, accusations, and ultimate failure.

“The fundamental problem is the Moon administration’s peace agenda—peace at any cost,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served five tours in South Korea. Maxwell, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, accuses Moon of adopting an “appeasement strategy strongly favored by the hard-left progressive appeasement faction within the Moon administration.” Biden, he believes, is taking a “harder line and more realistic view of the nature, objectives, and strategy” of the Kim regime, which remains as always “solely focused on dominating the Korean Peninsula.”

But tough language has often been as unsuccessful as soft words in dealing with the North. North Korea made clear where it stands on some of the language emanating from the White House and State Department when a senior foreign ministry official warned of “worse and worse crisis beyond control in the near future.” Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), in a dispatch in English, quoted the official as saying it was “certain” that Biden had “made a big blunder” by telling the U.S. Congress the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran presented a “serious threat.”

Yet this language is positively mild by Pyongyang’s standards. In January, at a party congress, Kim called for “subduing the U.S., our biggest enemy.” North Korean missiles and nuclear warheads, he said five years ago, could “keep any cesspool of evils in the earth, including the U.S. mainland, within our striking range.” After Biden called Kim a “murderous dictator” during his election campaign, KCNA said that “rabid dogs” like Biden “must be beaten to death with a stick.”

The fact that Kim did not issue a statement in his own name suggests that negotiations are not out of the question. Clearly, he is awaiting the outcome of the Biden-Moon summit with as much interest as the participants.

Donald Kirk is a journalist and author who has been covering North Korea since 1972.