The United States and South Korea could not have asked for more.
After a highly successful meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, last month, American President Joseph Biden pulled off another productive session with President of South Korea Moon Jae-in sending clear signals to allies and alliances in Europe and Asia-Pacific that the United States is back in the business after a rocky four years by way of President Donald Trump.
The fact that Biden had face-to-face meetings with leaders of Japan and South Korea, the only two foreign leaders to have visited the White House since President Biden took office on January 20, 2021, has also to be seen beyond the customary symbolism — a clear message to friends and adversaries in the Indo-Pacific.
Allies of America like Japan and South Korea and to a certain extent Germany in Europe were constantly badgered by President Trump, not over any grand strategic or geo-political designs but to score points on the domestic political agenda. Tokyo and Seoul were constantly berated for getting a “free ride” for their safety and security, and in the framework of Make America Great Again (MAGA) that the key East Asian allies were not buying enough from America. And President Trump had it all figured out: that Japan and South Korea would be on their knees if only Washington threatened to pull back troops home. At one time Trump even threatened to pull out of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, known as KORUS. In fact, citing German “delinquency” in matters of defence spending President Trump ordered the drawdown of 12,000 American troops stationed in that country, a decision that was quickly rescinded by Biden.
The issue of “freeloading” was not something new in the Trump administration; rather it has figured prominently in the 1970s and 1980s and to some extent at the beginning of the Clinton administration or anytime Seoul and Tokyo ran huge trade surpluses with Washington. But what made things different during Trump’s four years was that he put a monetary value on what allies ought to be forking out: Japan was pressured to spend some eight times more than it was and South Korea five times higher. The United States maintains some 28,000 troops in South Korea and 55,000 in Japan, not to mention installations especially in Japan’s Okinawa; all of which would be needed in any eventuality in the Asia Pacific that would include the Straits of Taiwan.
One of the major achievements of the Biden administration was that it came to an agreement with both South Korea and Japan on the costs of the host country’s spending. Under a five-year Special Measures Agreement (SMA) South Korea will spend about US$ 1 billion in the first year to cover training, equipment and transportation of American forces in Korea and will rise to US$ 1.3 billion by 2025. And as Tokyo and Washington continue to work on the modalities of payments for a five-year period, Japan has agreed to spend some 200 billion yen, or US$ 1.9 billion for an interim one-year period that is set to end April 2022.
And for a country that has a lot of stake in how the United States deals with North Korea, President Moon got more than a hint as to how President Biden is looking at Pyongyang and its Chairman Kim Jong Un. “If there was a commitment on which we met, then I would meet with him (Chairman Kim). And the commitment has to be that there is a discussion about his nuclear arsenal. What I would not do is what has been done in the recent past. I would not give him all he’s looking for, international recognition as legitimate, and give him what allowed him to move in a direction of appearing to be more serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about”, Biden said. Trump had met Chairman Kim first in Singapore in 2018; Hanoi in February 2019 and in the demilitarized zone in June 2019, all of which had produced no concrete breakthroughs.
Republican and Democratic administrations in the past have been apprehensive of giving Chairman Kim undue international legitimacy to his nuclear weapons for fear of setting off similar programs in Seoul and Tokyo and also embolden further the state of Israel which is already considered as an undeclared nuclear power.
In making clear that he is neither for the “quick deal” approach of President Trump nor the “strategic patience” of President Barack Obama, President Biden maintained a stoic silence on what would be “his way” to deal with North Korea on the bilateral and multilateral punitive measures.
But that he was serious Biden announced that the veteran diplomat Sung Kim, a Korean American in a senior position at the State Department, would be the Special Envoy to North Korea, a move that was immediately appreciated in the diplomatic community given his experience during the Obama years. And like his predecessors, Biden did not say much on an issue that Kim Jong Un is anxious about—the lifting of sanctions that is critical to the survival of the isolated country. Washington is all too aware of the difference and the reasons in foreign policy approaches of Japan and South Korea towards North Korea – the former insistent on a tough no-nonsense policy as opposed to a more relaxed and flexible attitude by South Korea towards its neighbor.
During his summit with President Moon, Biden may have been distracted by what was happening in the West Bank and Gaza, but the meeting at the White House focused on a number of issues, including ways of dealing with the ongoing COVID pandemic. With only an estimated 7 per cent of South Koreans having received at least one jab of vaccine—as opposed to nearly 50 percent for Americans—Biden announced that the United States will provide the 550,000 service personnel of South Korea with vaccines. “The world is welcoming America’s return and keeping their hopes high for America’s leadership more than ever before”, President Moon said, not specifically referring to Washington’s vaccine gesture.
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.
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