South Korea urges Joe Biden to build on Donald Trump’s diplomacy with North

18 January 2021, 12:34

Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un and Joe Biden (Alex Brandon/North Korea/Matt Slocum/AP)
Korea. Picture: PA

President Moon Jae-in hopes to revive the initiatives undertaken in three summits between Mr Trump and the North’s Kim Jong Un.

South Korea’s president urged the incoming Biden administration to build upon the achievements and learn from the failures of President Donald Trump’s diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

A dovish liberal and the son of northern war refugees, Moon Jae-in had lobbied hard to help set up Mr Trump’s three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but their diplomacy stalemated over disagreements over easing crippling US-led sanctions for the North’s disarmament.

Mr Biden has accused Mr Trump of chasing the spectacle of summits rather than meaningful curbs on the North’s nuclear capabilities.

North Korea has a history of staging weapons tests and other provocations to test new US presidents, and Mr Kim vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons programme in recent political speeches that were seen as aimed at pressuring the incoming Biden administration.

President Donald Trump and leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, at Capella, Singapore (Kevin Lim/The Straits Times/PA)
President Donald Trump and leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, at Capella, Singapore (Kevin Lim/The Straits Times/PA)

The South Korean leader has been desperate to keep alive a positive atmosphere for dialogue in the face of Mr Kim’s vows to further expand a nuclear and missile programme that threatens Asian US allies and the US homeland.

And while Mr Moon acknowledged that Mr Biden is likely to try a different approach than Mr Trump, he stressed that Mr Biden could still learn from Mr Trump’s successes and failures in dealing with North Korea.

During a mostly virtual news conference in Seoul, Mr Moon claimed that Mr Kim still had a “clear willingness” to denuclearis if Washington and Pyongyang could find mutually agreeable steps to decrease the nuclear threat and ensure the North’s security.

Most experts see Mr Kim’s recent comments as further evidence he will maintain his weapons programme to ensure his regime’s survival.

When asked about the North’s efforts to increase its ballistic capacity to strike targets throughout South Korea, including US bases there, Mr Moon said the South could sufficiently cope with such threats with its missile defence systems and other military assets.

“The start of the Biden administration provides a new opportunity to start over talks between North Korea and the United States and also between South and North Korea,” which have stalled amid the stalemate in nuclear negotiations, Mr Moon said.

“The North Korean efforts to expand its nuclear program and acquire more weapons systems are all because we have not succeeded yet in reaching an agreement over denuclearisation and establishing peace.

“These are problems that could all be solved by success in dialogue,” he said.

During an eight-day congress of North Korea’s Workers’ Party that ended last week, Mr Kim described the United States as his country’s “foremost principal enemy.”

He did not entirely rule out talks, but he said the fate of bilateral relations would depend on whether Washington abandons its hostile policy toward Pyongyang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (Lee Jin-man/AP)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (Lee Jin-man/AP)

The erosion in inter-Korean relations have been a major setback to Mr Moon, who met Mr Kim three times in 2018 while expressing ambitions to reboot inter-Korean economic engagement when possible, voicing optimism that international sanctions could end and allow such projects.

Mr Moon said the South would continue to seek ways to improve relations with the North within the boundary of sanctions, such as pursuing humanitarian assistance and joint anti-virus efforts against Covid-19.

But Mr Kim during the ruling party congress already described such offers as “inessential” while slamming South Korea for its own efforts to strengthen defence capabilities and continuing annual military exercises with the United States, which were downsized under Trump to create space for diplomacy.

Experts say Pyongyang is pressuring Seoul to break away from Washington by halting their joint drills and to defy sanctions and restart inter-Korean economic cooperation.

During Mr Trump’s first summit with Kim in June 2018, they pledged to improve bilateral relations and issued vague aspirational vows for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when and how it would occur.

But the negotiations faltered after their second meeting in February 2019 when the Americans rejected the North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantling of an ageing nuclear reactor, which would have amounted to a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un (Kevin Lim/The Straits Times/PA)
Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un (Kevin Lim/The Straits Times/PA)

Mr Moon said that Mr Trump and Mr Kim’s agreement in their first meeting was still relevant and the Biden administration should take lessons from the failures of their second meeting,

“The declaration in Singapore under the Trump administration was a very important declaration for denuclearisation and building peace in the Korean Peninsula,” Mr Moon said.

“Of course, it’s very lamentable that the (content of the) declaration remains theoretical because of the failures to back it up with concrete agreements,” he said.

“But if we start over from the Singapore declaration and revive talks over concrete steps, it’s possible that diplomacy between North Korea and the United States and between South and North Korea would gain pace again.”

Mr Moon said he hopes to meet Mr Biden as soon as possible and that South Korean officials were actively communicating with their American counterparts to ensure that the North Korea issue remains a priority for the new US government, which inherits a horrendous coronavirus outbreak and domestic political turmoil.

By Press Association