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Biden-Moon Summit Aims To Show U.S.-Korea Alliance Is Solid

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When President Biden says America is back, that includes the idea that America's alliances are back. The first two heads of state to meet with the president in Washington are the leaders of U.S. allies in Asia - Japan in April and South Korea this week. From Seoul, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on what that means for President Moon Jae-in, who meets the president tomorrow.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Early in his five-year term, President Moon scored some diplomatic successes. He met with the North's Kim Jong Un and brokered a summit between Kim and then-President Trump. These helped to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But negotiations have been stalled for more than two years. Moon recently said this could be his last shot at moving the ball forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "I will consider the remaining one year of my term," he said, "to be the last opportunity to move from an incomplete peace toward one that is irreversible."

The three countries have all indicated that they're willing to build on the 2018 Singapore summit between Trump and Kim. Minseon Ku, a doctoral candidate at The Ohio State University, explains.

MINSEON KU: It is highly likely that President Moon will push for Singapore statement to be included in US-ROK joint statement at the end of the summit. And if that happens, it hopefully might change Kim Jong Un's mind about restarting nuclear diplomacy with the U.S.

KUHN: The Republic of Korea, or ROK, is South Korea's formal name. Ku notes that the Singapore statement is important because it includes an agreement in principle on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, as well as upgrading the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang although it doesn't specify how. Moon and Biden will, of course, try to show their countries' alliance is as solid as ever. Biden's focus on alliances is partly aimed at maintaining U.S. dominance in Asia and constraining China. Some South Koreans would like to see Moon side more clearly with the U.S. Among them is Ho-Young Ahn, a former ambassador to the U.S. He's now president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. He says Moon's current balancing act between Beijing and Washington can't last.

HO-YOUNG AHN: It will only strengthen the impression that Korea's the weakest link in the network of U.S. alliances in Asia-Pacific. It will eventually lead to Korea losing credibility both with the United States and China.

KUHN: But even clearly siding with the U.S., he adds, should not mean that Seoul has to sacrifice ties with its neighbor and trading partner Beijing.

AHN: Korea's foreign and security policy is based upon that alliance. But it doesn't mean we do not realize the importance of our bilateral relationship with China.

KUHN: But South Korea's economic clout means that it can help its ally the U.S. compete with China instead of confronting it. For example, President Moon is expected to bring with him executives from his country's biggest conglomerates, Samsung, LG and SK. They're expected to invest in factories in the U.S. to make semiconductors and electric vehicle batteries, industries where President Biden wants to create jobs and compete with China. Ohio State's Minseon Ku says Moon, meanwhile, will be looking to make a coronavirus vaccine swap with the U.S. to speed up his own rollout at home. She says it might look like this.

KU: South Korea will get a number of vaccines from the U.S. in May and June. And in return, South Korea will produce some of these vaccines in South Korea and send them back to the U.S. in the later part of the year.

KUHN: There is speculation that Seoul and Washington could even team up to offer North Korea some vaccines in order to break the diplomatic ice.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this report, we say Ambassador Ho-young Ahn believes President Moon Jae-in’s "balancing act between Beijing and Washington can’t last." Ahn was in fact referring to strategic ambiguity as a policy option for South Korea, not Pres. Moon Jae-in’s current policies.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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