Biden and South Korean President to Discuss China, North Korea at White House Summit

May 21, 2021 Updated: May 21, 2021

President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on Friday, with a senior administration official saying that the two leaders’ discussions will highlight the “ironclad alliance” between their respective countries and focus on mutual strategic and security challenges, including those posed by China and North Korea.

The South Korean president will be the second world leader to meet face-to-face with Biden at the White House, with the meeting due to take place weeks after the Biden administration finalized its monthslong review of North Korea policy.

A senior administration official said Thursday that, “our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK [North Korea] to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and our deployed forces.”

The official’s remarks echo those made by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who on April 30 similarly characterized the Biden administration’s North Korea policy as one that “calls for a calibrated, practical approach.”

“Our goal remains the complete … denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. With a clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administrations have not achieved this objective, our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” Psaki said.

The senior administration official said Thursday that the two leaders would talk about North Korea policy “extensively” on Friday.

Asked by a reporter whether a “middle course” between a “grand bargain” and “strategic patience” would mean limited sanctions relief in return for nuclear concessions, the official declined to “lay out exactly our diplomatic strategy here and now” but added that the intent was to design it to be “flexible” so as to “give ourselves the best chance of diplomatic success.”

“At this juncture, it’s really not in our interest to preview or comment on specific issues like an end-of-war declaration in hopes of spurring dialogue,” the official added.

Moon has been hoping to use his first summit with Biden to press a legacy policy of engaging North Korea, while Washington has played down the prospect of any quick impetus on the issue. Biden is poised to prioritize boosting cooperation with Seoul on regional security more broadly—notably in response to the challenge posed by China—including in high-tech industries such as microchips.

Former President Donald Trump sought to engage deeply with North Korea to persuade Pyongyang to de-nuclearize under what some reports have characterized as a “grand bargain” framework, while the Obama administration pursued a policy of “strategic patience.”

Biden administration officials have reportedly consulted with Trump administration officials who took part in the Singapore talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump at meetings in June 2018 and February 2019. The last face-to-face talks between senior officials from the two countries were held in Sweden in October 2019, while the Biden administration’s efforts to resume a dialogue have been rebuffed.

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in late March, just days after firing two non-ballistic missiles into the Yellow Sea, with the launches coming after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Japan and South Korea that same month. At those meetings, Blinken strongly criticized North Korea’s nuclear program and human rights record and called on China to use its “tremendous influence” to convince Pyongyang to de-nuclearize.

On Thursday, Moon went to Capitol Hill to meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional leaders.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @OZImekTOM