The Biden-Moon Summit: Rejuvenating and Modernizing the Alliance

South Korean president Moon Jae-in is set to visit Washington this week for a summit with U.S. president Joe Biden on May 21. These critical questions preview what the two leaders are likely to discuss as well as the pressing issues in the U.S.-South Korea relationship.

Q1: What is the setting for this summit?

A1: This is the 10th meeting between President Moon and a U.S. president, and the first with President Biden. President Moon is the second foreign head of state to visit the Biden White House, following Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga, a reflection of the priority placed by the Biden administration on rejuvenating U.S. alliances in Asia. The administration did well to clear the underbrush in the alliance of nettlesome issues so that the two leaders could start afresh. Prominent among these was the conclusion of the 11th Special Measures Agreement signed in April, which commits the two allies to a cost-sharing plan for U.S. Forces Korea and requires no renegotiation for six years. This issue remained unresolved for the duration of the Donald Trump presidency and was the source of both distraction and bad blood between the two sides. The two leaders will likely reaffirm the strength of the alliance and undertake measures to enhance defense and extended deterrence, including possible improvements to South Korea’s strike capabilities.

Q2: What about policy toward North Korea?

A2: The Biden administration at the end of April completed its long-awaited policy review that included significant consultations with South Korea. Ahead of the summit, administration officials state that they are comfortable with the degree of alignment between Seoul and Washington, deflecting views that the engagement-oriented Moon and more cautious Biden are far apart on how to approach North Korea. While details of the review have not been made public, the administration has made clear: (1) the goal remains denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (North Korea); (2) the likelihood of a “grand bargain” is small; and (3) there is a commitment to diplomacy (i.e., not strategic patience) with a desire to negotiate incremental steps that make meaningful progress toward reducing the threat. The fact that Seoul has not raised expectations in advance of the summit of some breathtaking proposals suggests a collective realization that Pyongyang is not cycling into a dialogue mode just yet. Indeed, North Korea might await the results of the summit before engaging in typical provocations, such as missile tests, to raise the price for their return to the negotiating table.

Q3: Why is the Moon government focusing on Covid-19 diplomacy at this summit?

A3: The Moon government has significantly raised expectations of U.S. help on Covid-19 vaccines and will use this issue as a barometer for the success of the summit. This is a bit of a gamble as South Korea does not meet the traditional metrics for access to surplus supplies of U.S. vaccines. It is not poor; it is not without an adequate, assured supply (having secured upwards of 99 million total doses); nor does it have runaway virus spread in the country like, for example, India. Nevertheless, South Korea is pushing hard for some vaccine support from the United States in the second quarter of 2021 because its own supplies will not be secured until the third or fourth quarter of this year, which may be late for the government’s promise to reach herd immunity (70 percent) by November. Currently, only 1 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

While South Korea may not meet the standard metrics for U.S. vaccine surplus distribution, there are a range of possible alternatives that could benefit both countries. These include a vaccine swap agreement (immediate vaccine supply to South Korea in return for South Korean supplies of mRNA vaccines later this year) or arrangements to have South Korea aid the United States in global production and distribution of vaccines through contractual manufacturing or technological licensing agreements. South Korea’s top bioscience companies are already producing AstraZeneca vaccines domestically and are in negotiations with Moderna.

Such cooperation on global health, along with climate and technology issues (discussed below), would be admirable ways to advance a “New Frontiers” agenda in the U.S.-South Korea alliance that allows the relationship to provide public goods and reinforce the rules-based international order. (For more, CSIS recommendations for the U.S.-South Korea alliance .)

Q4: What about economics and trade?

A4: We should expect to see some announcements on major South Korean investments in two areas of importance for the Biden administration’s Build Back Better initiative: climate and technology. These include major new investments by Samsung in chip foundry production in Texas; Hyundai-Kia Motors in electronic vehicle production plants in Alabama and Georgia; and SK and LG in lithium battery production in Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee. While these investments will produce new jobs for Americans, they also benefit South Korea in two ways. First, these investments will comply with new rules of origin requirements for domestic sales in the United States of South Korean automobiles under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Second, they will allow South Korea to keep future production of high-end technology in a trusted and predictable political and legal environment in comparison with production in China.

Q5: Are there other possible deliverables?

A5: The prominence of democratic values, technology, global health, reliable supply chains, and climate issues at this summit overlaps very closely with the agenda of the Quad grouping involving the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. South Korea’s hesitance to join the Quad reflects deep concerns about Chinese retaliation, not unlike what it experienced over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system several years ago. Yet a clear success of the summit for Biden’s coalitional approach to diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific would be Seoul joining the Quad. Though this may be a bridge too far right now, one can be certain that serious discussions will take place behind closed doors, perhaps setting the stage for Seoul to join the grouping in the future.

Victor Cha is senior vice president and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and vice dean for faculty and graduate affairs and D.S. Song-KF professor of government at Georgetown University.

Critical Questions  is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair