South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in Washington from May 21 to 22 for a crucial summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. Much of the world remains under the dark cloud of the pandemic. Global economic recovery is just beginning, but as shown by a huge shortage in computer chips, more resilient supply chains must be made. As the United States ponders how to counterbalance China and reformulate its Russia policy, North Korea and Iran continue to present challenges. While aware of Biden’s full foreign policy plate, Moon still wants to convince him that re-engaging with North Korea should be at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy priorities.

Biden is all for diplomacy with North Korea, as his national security team has repeatedly stated. But what Biden really wants is for South Korea to stand up as a truly globalized, model G20 country. Moon is only the second foreign leader (after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga) to visit the White House since Biden took office. Biden is rolling out the red carpet for Moon because he needs the South Korean leader as a vital wingman during treacherous times.

South Korea Has a Lot to Offer

Of all the countries where American service members have fought since 1945, South Korea is the only one that has really thrived. It is difficult to imagine today, but in the late 1950s, U.S. aid comprised nearly half of the country’s annual budget. Today, Samsung phones, LG TVs, and Hyundai cars are ubiquitous across the United States. Some 36,000 Americans died in Korea in defense of freedom, and South Korea has paid back in kind by proving to the United States that service members’ lives were not sacrificed in vain.

Chung Min Lee
Chung Min Lee is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program. He is an expert on Korean and Northeast Asian security, defense, intelligence, and crisis management.
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South Korea stands out because it is an all-round player. It is the world’s tenth largest economy and a vibrant democracy in a region replete with varying shades of authoritarianism. South Korea has advanced manufacturing, 5G networks, a first-rate national healthcare system, and a military that is closely aligned with its American counterpart. For two years running, South Koreans won Oscars at the Academy Awards, and Korean pop culture has captured a global audience. Just ask Netflix, which is investing heavily in South Korean production companies in an effort to tap into the Asian market without relying on Chinese sponsors.

In the post-pandemic world, Seoul can help revamp vital supply chains for computer chips and batteries, export its know-how in pandemic management, lead Asia on climate change and energy transitions, and seek common ground with the United States and its allies as China gains global leverage. And yes, South Korean support for enhancing human rights worldwide, including North Korea, is essential.

Why It Would Be a Mistake to Focus Solely on North Korea

But Moon must be careful not to overplay his hand. Biden sees the world through the lens of mitigating climate change and rejuvenating a liberal international order. To be sure, reducing the growing danger of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and more advanced ballistic missiles is a critical task. Moon’s rationale for rekindling U.S.–North Korea relations is solid. However, if he overstates the need to entice Pyongyang, he will lose Biden’s trust, and with it, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to significantly bolster South Korea’s global standing and influence.

For the past four years of his presidency, Moon has put almost all of his national security and foreign policy eggs into one basket: making irreversible peace with North Korea. Over the course of three inter-Korean summits in 2018, including a landmark trip to Pyongyang, the two Koreas seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. In June 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump shook hands with Kim Jong Un and signed the Singapore Declaration that committed North Korea to denuclearization and the United States to normalizing relations. But at the second summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Trump walked away when Kim refused to make real concessions.

Pyongyang quickly soured on Seoul when it realized that Moon’s mediations did not convince Trump to provide much needed sanctions relief. In June 2020, North Korea blew up the South-North Liaison Office in Kaesong, North Korea—which had been built with South Korean money. Still, Moon continues to court Kim Jong Un in the belief that if the United States provides sanctions relief and enters into earnest negotiations, Kim will abide by the promises he made in Singapore.

The Moon government has bent over backwards to accommodate North Korea. It rushed a bill through the National Assembly that banned the sending of ballooned leaflets across the border into North Korea. Meanwhile, Pyongyang continues to vehemently attack the activities of resettled North Korean human rights activists in the South. But kowtowing to Pyongyang on human rights badly damages South Korea’s reputation as a liberal democracy. The huge disconnect is that while the ruling party and the Moon government go after virtually every alleged human rights violation by conservative groups in the South, they remain totally silent on North Korea’s unparalleled abuses. Seoul does not have to make human rights the epicenter of its North Korea policy. But it should be South Korea, and not the United States, that champions the importance of improving human rights in North Korea.

What Biden Wants from Moon

Biden will agree with Moon on the importance of re-engaging with North Korea. Still, unlike his predecessor, Biden isn’t enamored with Kim Jong Un. For Trump, his meetings with Kim were part of a reality television show that highlighted Trump’s achievements in the eyes of the world. Trump did not care about the U.S.-South Korean alliance. He denigrated Moon in private whenever he had the chance and continued his so-called bromance with Kim while his senior national security team rolled their eyes in disbelief. In contrast, Biden came into office with decades of pragmatic foreign policy experience in the U.S. Senate and as vice president. He is in no hurry to take Air Force One into Pyongyang.

On ties with South Korea, Biden is likely to provide Moon with much needed COVID-19 vaccines to accelerate herd immunity in the country. He may also raise the importance of full and sustained South Korean participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—the strategic security forum that includes the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. According to local press reports, Moon will dip his toes into the Quad by joining its working groups on vaccines, crucial technologies, and climate actions. South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party is steadfastly against South Korea joining the Quad because it believes such a move will inflame the country’s already delicate but critical relationship with China.

Another issue on the table will be the bitterness between Seoul and Tokyo. Because of the depth of animosity between South Korea and Japan—a situation that neither Moon nor Suga is willing to fix—Biden has had to cajole two of his most important Asian allies to engage at the highest levels. On April 2, South Korea’s National Security Adviser Suh Hoon went to Washington to meet with Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese counterpart Shigeru Kitamura, Secretary General of the National Security Secretariat. Restoring trust and security cooperation between South Korea and Japan is a key element of Biden’s Asia policy, and Moon is likely to see how much Biden wants his two key allies to work together.

South Korea’s Strong Hand

Moon understands how committed Biden is to bringing the United States out of the pandemic and restoring America’s economic prowess and standing in the world. He is very supportive of significantly increasing South Korean companies’ investments in the United States. Samsung Group is poised to announce a $17 billion investment in semiconductors, most likely in Texas. SK Group is planning to open two new battery factories in Georgia and together with Ford Motors, plans to invest some $5.3 billion in a joint battery factory. This is all sweet music to Biden’s ears, given that infrastructure modernization lies at the center of his economic recovery strategy. There aren’t many American allies who have the ability to make such commitments, but if there ever was a time for South Korea to show its support for strengthening America’s economic and technological resilience, it is now.

Democratic allies don’t always agree. But on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic and China and Russia’s simultaneous challenge to the prevailing international order, the moment calls for the strongest cohesion. Biden should test the diplomatic waters with North Korea and engage with the Kim regime while also ensuring that joint U.S.–South Korean deterrence and defense remains airtight. Meanwhile, Moon can leave a lasting foreign policy legacy not by revisiting Trump’s cavalier and ill-prepared meetings with Kim but by forging new bonds with Biden through technological cooperation, climate leadership, and by being a solid democratic partner to the United States.