U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (R) and Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) look at the White House from a balcony of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 21, 2021.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (R) and Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) look at the White House from a balcony of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 21, 2021. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Biden, Moon Seek Return to Normal After Four Years of ‘Chaotic’ Trump

But the U.S. and South Korean leaders remain far apart on topics from North Korea to human rights.

After years of Donald Trump’s claims that Seoul is ripping off America, Joe Biden will seek to heal the allies’ strained relations in his first presidential meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-In. But Friday’s summit will be just the prelude to difficult conversations on everything from North Korea to human rights, and experts expect no immediate major foreign policy agreements.

“There is a fundamental difference in Biden’s philosophy and that of Moon,” said Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst who is a policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. The two differ on pursuing peace with Pyongyang, other defense priorities, and even leadership styles. “For the two sides to come to healing, we would have needed to see a different U.S. president elected or we might have wanted to see Moon try to do a recalibration of his position towards Washington, towards North Korea, and of course also towards China.…We’re not seeing that.” 

That means that the summit will be a success if it merely demonstrates the 70-year-old relationship is still solid, said David Kang, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute. 

Moon will aim to “reaffirm how much he thinks the U.S. is important and that the alliance is going well...because frankly under Trump it was very, very chaotic,” Kang said. “I think his main goal is simply the optics or stabilizing the relationship.” 

Trump and Moon clashed publicly during the last four years, and the former U.S. president continued to slam the South Korean leader after leaving office. In a statement last month, Trump said he “never respected” Moon, and reiterated his view that the South Korean government was ripping off America by not paying enough for the troops stationed there. 

“President Moon was weak as a leader and as a negotiator,” Trump said. “We were treated like fools for decades.…The South Koreans are laughing all the way to the bank.” 

The issue of how much South Korea will pay to maintain an American troop presence in the country was settled in March, removing one of the most contentious issues that has plagued the alliance. 

By rescinding Trump’s threat to withdraw troops, Biden has already begun to repair the once-solid relationship, said David Maxwell, a retired Army officer now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“The alliance is going to proceed on a level of trust that really didn’t exist for the last four years,” Maxwell said.

But that doesn’t mean the two men are in lockstep agreement, and overcoming some of their differences is likely to be impossible, analysts predict. 

On North Korea, the Moon administration sees now as its “last best chance” to strike a peace deal as the South Korean president enters the final year of his term and hopes to leave a legacy of ending conflict, Kim said. South Korea has pushed the United States to loosen some sanctions on Pyongyang as a way to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un back to the negotiating table. 

A senior administration official told reporters Wednesday that Biden’s policy calls for complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, adding that the White House’s North Korea policy will “not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience.”

Asked specifically about the administration’s willingness to sign a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, which is a top priority for South Korean leaders, the official said, “I think, 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. But you can expect that a significant amount of the upcoming visit will be spent discussing the challenges of [North Korea] and how our two countries can move forward together in dialogue and deterrence.”

Michael Green, a former National Security Council staffer and senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was more blunt, saying American officials have “no real interest” in approving a peace deal, which would force them to continue working towards the ultimate goal of denuclearization alone and with reduced leverage after Moon leaves office.

There’s unlikely to be any sort of major breakthrough on North Korea during the summit, but experts speculated about some potential small wins Moon may seek. For example, the South Koreans could ask the Biden team to appoint a special representative for North Korea to show that it’s a high priority for the United States, said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst on Korean issues who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another potential victory could be Biden giving Moon more flexibility for minimal cooperation with North Korea, including opening up some trade between the two countries or possibly allowing South Korea to continue a program to build train tracks linking North and South Korea that the United States stalled in 2018, Kang said.

Another important divergence between Biden and Moon is on human rights. South Korea residents, especially defectors from the north, sometimes send anti-Pyongyang propaganda, as well as money, medicine and USB drives with outside news, over the border to those still in North Korea via balloon. South Korea passed a law in December that bans these activities, drawing criticism from human rights activists who say it restricts freedom of expression and criminalizes humanitarian activism.

“If you can’t see eye-to-eye on this issue, what does it say about the relationship, as well as perhaps the direction South Korea is going?” Kim said.