A South Korean perspective

  • Minseon Ku

The summit between President Moon Jae-in and President Joe Biden on May 21 was critical for Moon and the South Korean public in two key ways: 1) it was the first time that Biden would clarify his views on nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, which would be critical in determining Moon’s achievement in foreign policy; and 2) for the South Korean public, the summit outcome on vaccines would dictate whether life will return to normal within the year. A review of newspapers shows that the summit outcomes fell short of expectations especially on the vaccine front. However, this analysis concludes that the skepticism and criticisms against Moon’s summit with Biden overlook the reality of middle power diplomacy.

Moon’s 2021 so far

Moon, who only has about 10 months left in office, has been facing conundrums in both domestic and foreign policies. The results of the April 7th Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections in which the ruling Democratic Party (DP) suffered crushing defeats signaled South Koreans’ discontent with the administration.1 The administration came under fire in March because of a public housing scandal. The COVID-19 pandemic has also hit the economy hard and the public has been feeling the fatigue from prolonged restrictions due to South Korea’s failure to secure vaccines considered safer than those readily available in the country.2

On the foreign policy front, Moon’s administration has been criticized from both right- and left-leaning media for pursuing “strategic ambiguity” amid intensifying US-China competition. Criticisms from the right against this policy had grown louder as the increased international visibility of South Korea following its invitation to the G7 summit last year triggered calls for Moon to choose the US over China. The election of Biden also threatened to undermine Moon’s Korean Peace Process by forcing backpedaling in his efforts to reinvigorate inter-Korea dialogue and reversing whatever was accomplished between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. At the same time, rumors about the Blue House turning down US demands for South Korea’s participation in the Quad fueled conservative views that Moon was choosing North Korea and China over the alliance.3

What did Moon want from Biden?

Given the high level of South Korean discontent with the way he has been handling domestic and foreign affairs, Moon’s first meeting with Biden was going to be a test of whether the alliance is stable judging from US support in two issues: vaccines and North Korea policy. An unsatisfactory outcome on either issue-area would have confirmed critics’ and opposition party views that Moon had sacrificed the alliance for North Korea and/or China. A failure to secure a supply of “safer” vaccines from the US could be interpreted by South Koreans that the alliance was unhealthy. And a lack of support from Biden for Moon’s approach towards North Korea could be read as Moon’s inter-Korea policy further undermining the alliance that already seemed shaky during the Trump years. Thus, Moon needed to score points on both to show skeptics and the South Korean public that the alliance is solid and stable.

Perspectives on the summit: warm alliance, cold calculations

The optics from Moon’s visit signaled that the alliance was still robust if not affective. Photos of Moon and Biden having an intimate patio lunch over crab cakes and both posing for a group photo with Korean War veteran Ralph Puckett were a stark contrast from Biden’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Suga just a month earlier. Maskless meetings and the absence of social distancing interactions between the leaders as well as between Moon Jae-in and others like Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden further exuded intimacy and normalcy in the bilateral relations. The visuals not only illustrated interpersonal bonding between the two leaders but also the reaffirmation by the US that South Korea remains an important ally. And the optics seem to have persuaded South Korean conservatives that Moon’s foreign policy did not lead to the US forsaking the alliance. Joongang Ilbo’s survey of ten experts welcomed the “restoration” of the alliance,4 and Chosun Ilbo commented that the two countries are now “closer” after a period of friction and that it hoped for the “normalization” of the alliance to follow the summit.5

But beneath these optics lies the cold calculation of transactions inherent in any diplomacy. Transactional diplomacy is based on a quid pro quo logic of engagement between states that try to reach “deals” with one another. When practiced well, every cooperation becomes a “fungible and potentially tradable asset” such that cooperation in one issue-area can be reciprocated in another issue-area.6 The transaction between Seoul and Washington was apparent in two issue-areas that have been dominating South Korean foreign policy news headlines: North Korea and COVID-19 vaccines.

First, Biden’s recognition of the 2018 inter-Korea Panmunjom Declaration as well as the 2018 US-North Korea Singapore Statement as guiding future North Korea diplomacy gave Moon a diplomatic success, albeit superficial. In addition to this, the surprise appointment of Sung Kim as the new US special envoy to North Korea was interpreted as boosting Moon’s foreign policy. That Biden gave Moon a diplomatic boost for the latter’s job approval at home was hinted by both right- and left-leaning South Korean newspapers as they claimed that Biden’s statement on North Korea was mere rhetoric and not actual policy.7 Some dailies highlighted that Biden had actually instructed South Korea “not to rush” its diplomacy with North Korea, even predicting that North Korea will likely not reciprocate any diplomatic initiatives because of China.8

In addition to providing greater flexibility for Moon to pursue his own inter-Korea policy, Biden also agreed to abolish the bilateral missile guidelines which capped South Korea’s ability to develop longer range missiles. While both the ruling and opposition parties welcomed South Korea regaining its missile sovereignty,9 the news media sounded the alarm that this new-found sovereign right could bring backlash from China and Russia as Biden’s intention is to contain China through South Korea.10

Thus, the security transaction was seen as giving South Korea greater freedom in certain security matters in exchange for limited options in US-China rivalry. Moon reportedly abandoned his “strategic ambiguity” by supporting the US on all three key regional issues (ASEAN’s role in the region, stability in the Taiwan Strait, and Myanmar’s democratization)11 that are central to China’s interests12 and supporting the Quad which is seen as a balance against China. The reaction in South Korea has been lukewarm despite criticisms against Moon’s “strategic ambiguity,” implying that Moon’s decision to side with the US was surprising yet expected. Right-leaning Joongang Ilbo gave credit to the Biden administration rather than to Moon for the sudden change in his foreign policy. It noted that Biden, in contrast to Trump, has been making US-China competition more salient through action rather than just rhetoric, leaving Moon with no choice but to be on board with the US.13 Both right and left-leaning newspapers forecast gloomy days for Sino-Korea relations, calling Moon’s decision to hold hands with the US in regional matters an “alliance dilemma” that would worsen Sino-Korea ties.14 Views diverged on how South Korea could deal with China, however. While right-leaning DongA Ilbo called for Seoul to deal with it confidently using “principled diplomacy,”15 progressive Kyunghyang recommended less confrontational diplomacy as “zero-sum diplomacy” toward the US and China would be unfavorable to South Korea.16

The second transaction between South Korea and the US involved COVID-19 vaccines. The possibility of reaching an agreement on a “vaccine swap” was first raised by Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong in late April that talks were underway for the US to supply South Korea with vaccines first and the latter “paying back” the US later in the year by manufacturing them locally.17 Securing vaccine supply then became politicized when former opposition party leader Hwang Kyo-ahn visited Washington a week before the summit to conduct his own “vaccine diplomacy.”18 A deal was foreshadowed by Moon just four days before his meeting with Biden when he announced that South Korea will emerge as a global vaccine manufacturing hub as a result of the summit.19 In addition to the comprehensive vaccine partnership between the two countries, Biden “surprised” Moon by agreeing to provide vaccines to 550,000 South Korean troops.20

The divergence of responses from the conservative opposition and liberal ruling parties was clearer on the vaccine issue, with conservatives emphasizing that the summit failed to resolve the immediate shortage of vaccines while liberals framed the partnership as a long-term opportunity. Right-leaning media outlets also emphasized that the administration knew in advance that a vaccine swap was not going to happen and accused the government of making false claims prior to the summit.21 The main opposition People’s Power Party (PPP) criticized Moon for self-acclaimed success in making South Korea a “global vaccine hub” when there is no roadmap for implementation.22 In contrast, Kyunghyang newspaper noted that the Korea-US vaccine collaboration set the foundation for South Korea to be the world’s leading country in vaccine production.23

Moon’s failure to secure certain vaccines from the US was not received well by the Korean dailies, which underscored that not only did Moon make a poor deal, but he did so by relying on South Korea’s conglomerates’ $35 billion investment in the US.24 Chosun Ilbo gave credit for his successful summit with Biden to the firms, which ironically Moon has been trying to regulate. It downplayed the chemistry between the two leaders by claiming that Moon would not have been offered crab cake if not for the investment.25 Progressive Hankyoreh expressed concern about South Korea’s unemployment as a result of this foreign investment, while centrist Hankook Ilbo applauded the investment for elevating Korea-US relations to an “economic alliance.”26 Both right and left newspapers agreed that South Korea was doing the US a favor by supporting a US-led supply chain when instead the chaebols could reap better returns from investment in China.27

South Korea as a middle power and Moon-Biden transaction

While some of the skepticism about the summit outcomes is valid, it overlooks the peril and opportunities of middle power diplomacy. That is, under the anarchy structure of world politics that dictates states to practice self-help for survival, transactionalism is necessary especially for non-great powers. On the one hand, as an East Asian middle power in both geographic and systemic terms that further complicates its calculation of interest when it comes to its relations with China and the US, South Korea could face economic sanctions from China as a result of its greater economic interdependence with the US.28

On the other hand, its newfound security independence and sovereignty in North Korea matters and missile development is an opportunity for South Korea to build on its economic-based middle power identity to become a security middle power that brings it greater leverage in the region, offsetting possible security challenges from China and/or North Korea. Its massive investment in technologies in the US also gives South Korea an important position in US-led supply chain. While its middle power diplomacy could not overcome vaccine nationalism amid growing US-China competition,29 Korea-US vaccine collaboration would help South Korea nurture a world-class bio-pharmaceutical industry that has great growth potential as COVID-19 becomes endemic.

Most importantly, critics should not forget that the Moon-Biden transaction occurred only because of two factors. First, South Korea’s hitherto middle power diplomacy had relied on self-recognition and casting itself a middle power role, but the summit marked for the first time US’s recognition of South Korea as a middle power that is both systemically and geographically influential enough to lend weight to the US’s rule-based order.30 Second, the high level of institutionalization of the Korea-US alliance enabled transactions to occur in the first place because it signals long-term alliance commitment and reciprocity. Overall, Moon may appear to have deferred to Biden, but if Moon and his successor were to follow through and capitalize on this transactional diplomacy, South Korea could consolidate itself as a middle power in both security and economic domains, minimizing its vulnerability to any great power competition in the long run.



1. “Ruling party suffers crushing defeat in bellwether by-elections,” Yonhap News Agency, April 8, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210408000251315

2. 김영은, ‘[백신여론]① 국민 90% “코로나19 피로감”…65% “백신 맞겠다,”’ KBS, 2021년 3월 18일, https://news.kbs.co.kr/news/view.do?ncd=5143132&ref=A

3. 양범수, “靑, ‘미국이 쿼드 참가 요구했다’는 日 언론 보도에 "사실 아니다",” 조선일보, 2021년 4월 11일, https://biz.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2021/04/11/2021041100602.html; 김대중, “김정은’만 보이는 문재인 안보·외교,” 조선일보, 2021년 4월 27일, https://www.chosun.com/opinion/column/2021/04/27/OKRRU5IHQFAVDLJ4TFYY7RCRYU/?utm_source=naver&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=naver-news

4. 유지혜, 정진우, 박현주, “10점 만점에 7.85…전문가 10인, 한미동맹 복원에 박수쳤다,” 중앙일보, 2021년 5월 23일, https://news.joins.com/article/24064463

5. 주희연, “北인권·대만 언급한 한미 공동성명, 삐걱대던 양국 관계 가까워졌다,” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 22일, https://www.chosun.com/politics/blue_house/2021/05/22/ZIAVFN7FUZDRLAIP3N4IDVHCW4/;
“[사설] ‘미사일·쿼드·기술’ 합의, 한미 동맹 정상화의 출발 되길,” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 24일,  https://www.chosun.com/opinion/editorial/2021/05/24/UBC3ERP7V5AQ5EW2P56SJLJ2FU/

6. Marina Henke, “Trump’s Transactional Diplomacy: A Primer.” February 8, 2017, https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2017/02/08/trumps-transactional-diplomacy-a-primer/

7. “[강인선·배성규의 모닝 라이브] 북한에 미끼 던질 한미 정상 간 이면 합의 있나,” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 25일, https://www.chosun.com/politics/diplomacy-defense/2021/05/25/6K7JBBOZA5BWHA4S6V2AL2F7IY/; 이용수,“
美北대화 원칙적 동의 얻었지만… 바이든 “北비핵화 환상 없다”,’ 조선일보, 2021년 5월 24일, https://www.chosun.com/politics/north_korea/2021/05/24/434DBVZ3MVFT7OU5PHSXZ2E4JY/; 이주영, “[뉴스분석]한국, 미·중 ‘줄타기’서 미국으로 ‘한 발 더’,” 경향신문, 2021년 5월 23일,
http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=202105232319005&code=910302#csidx0991a9941b0e5689d69c4977f16d7d2 |

8. “[사설]새 대북특사 임명하면서 南에 ‘서둘지 말라’ 주문한 바이든,” 동아일보, 2021년 5월 24일,  May 24, 2021. https://www.donga.com/news/Opinion/article/all/20210523/107074515/1; 정용수, “
美, 제재 대신 협상하겠다는데…中 눈치보는 北은 입 닫았다,” 중앙일보, 2021년 5월 23일,

https://news.joins.com/article/24064446; 이재훈, “한·미 정상 ‘하노이 역풍’ 막고 ‘대북 관여’ 방향타 돌렸지만….” 한겨례, 2021년 5월 23일,
https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/politics/defense/996273.html#csidxcd0084c0885a46aa1b5292823b4a64b |/Users/lee/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Dreamweaver CS6/ko_KR/OfficeImageTemp/clip_image001_0000.gif” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″>

9. 손령, “42년 만에 ‘미사일 주권’ 되찾아…여야도 모두 환영,” MBC. 2021년 5월 23일,  https://imnews.imbc.com/replay/2021/nwdesk/article/6186750_34936.html

10. 손덕호, “42년만에 되찾은 ‘미사일 주권’…中 사정권 탄도미사일 개발 가능해져.” 조선비즈, 2021년 5월 22일, https://biz.chosun.com/policy/politics/2021/05/22/62WH2KLTFRGANLODNFTSG7DSEA/

11. 강태화, “5년차 돼서야 美 다가선 文…’盧 한미FTA·朴 사드’ 데자뷰?” 중앙일보. 2021년 5월 23일. https://news.joins.com/article/24064516

12. “U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement,” May 21, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/21/u-s-rok-leaders-joint-statement/

13. 유지혜, 강태화, 박현주, ‘"중국 겨냥 안된다"던 文정부, 두달새 무게추 美로 기운 까닭,” 중앙일보, 2021년 5월 24일, https://news.joins.com/article/24065478; 유지혜, “말 앞선 트럼프엔 꿈쩍않던 文, ‘행동파’ 바이든에 움직였다,” 중앙일보, 2021년 5월 23일, https://news.joins.com/article/24064467

14. “[사설]韓美, 전방위 對中 협력… 동맹 확장의 딜레마 극복이 과제.” 동아일보, 2021년 5월 24일, https://www.donga.com/news/Opinion/article/all/20210523/107074523/1; “[사설]한·미 동맹 강화, 한·중관계 훼손으로 이어져선 안 된다,” 경향신문, 2021년 5월 24일, 
http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=202105242046005&code=990101#csidxed986233e1e70bbb48d6b18ed7fa57f |/Users/lee/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Dreamweaver CS6/ko_KR/OfficeImageTemp/clip_image001_0001.gif” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″>

15. “[사설]中, 한미 정상회담에 반발… 원칙외교로 당당히 대응하라,” 동아일보, 2021년 5월 25일,  https://www.donga.com/news/Opinion/article/all/20210524/107093376/1

16. “[사설]한·미 동맹 강화, 한·중관계 훼손으로 이어져선 안 된다,” 경향신문, 2021년 5월 24일, |/Users/lee/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Dreamweaver CS6/ko_KR/OfficeImageTemp/clip_image001_0002.gif” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″>

17. 정의용, “美와 백신 스와프 협의 중”…野 “백신 외교 참사”,” 뉴스 A. 2021년 4월 20일,  http://www.ichannela.com/news/main/news_detailPage.do?publishId=000000246825

18. 홍준표, "백신으로 편 가르나…" 여야 모두 황교안 맹비난,” 매일신문, 2021년 5월 14일, https://news.imaeil.com/Politics/2021051412111881966

19. 문재인, “수석보좌관회의 모두발언.” 2021년 5월 17일, https://www1.president.go.kr/articles/10306

20. 이완, ‘문 대통령 귀국길…“백신 지원과 성김 대표 임명은 ‘깜짝 선물’”,’ 한겨레, 2021년 5월 23일,
https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/politics/bluehouse/996235.html#csidx80ca08d24cceb0ea98bc43d97d17078 |/Users/lee/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Dreamweaver CS6/ko_KR/OfficeImageTemp/clip_image001_0003.gif” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″>

21. 김아진, “美, 한국 우선 지원에 난색… 정부가 외친 백신 스와프는 없었다,” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 23일, https://www.chosun.com/politics/politics_general/2021/05/23/6P6UUY43D5AKTO77LZ6OOQVXIQ/; 유지혜, “美백신 8000만회 ‘개도국 몫’인데···정부 왜 백신 스와프 띄웠나,” 중앙일보, 2021년 5월 23일, https://news.joins.com/article/24064229

22. 김현원, “국민의힘 “文대통령, 자아도취 빠질 때 아냐…문제는 실천,”” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 23일, https://www.chosun.com/politics/2021/05/23/NJ6KBZCYA5EPXDR3VKEJNI6C3E/

23. “[사설]백신 허브·감염병 선진국 초석 다진 한·미의 ‘코로나 공조’,” 경향신문, 2021년 5월 23일,
http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=202105232044015&code=990101#csidxa32e9ba7ae4e41e95f4414c39e51d46 |/Users/lee/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Dreamweaver CS6/ko_KR/OfficeImageTemp/clip_image001_0004.gif” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″>

24. “[사설] 허언으로 끝난 백신 스와프, ‘국군 55만명분’에 감읍할 때인가,” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 24일, https://www.chosun.com/opinion/editorial/2021/05/24/ZCE4EWNABVBHLJRV2EYXZK75A4/

25. 이하원, “44조원짜리 크랩 케이크 오찬,” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 24일,  https://www.chosun.com/opinion/taepyeongro/2021/05/24/EK66SIRP5NAU7ODI4MBSSRPPDY/

26. “4대 그룹 미국 투자, 국내 고용 위축 최소화해야.” 한겨례, 2021년 5월 24일, https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/opinion/editorial/996480.html#csidx65139865dcb75e3a11fa4600045efda |/Users/lee/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Dreamweaver CS6/ko_KR/OfficeImageTemp/clip_image001_0005.gif” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″>; 신은별, “文-바이든, 한미동맹 외연 넓혔다…경제·기술동맹으로 확장,” 한국일보, 2021년 5월 24일, https://www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/A2021052315500000327?rPrev=A2021052317390002193

27. 박건형, 조성호. “바이든, 삼성·현대·SK·LG 일일이 불러 일으켜 “생큐 생큐 생큐”,” 조선일보, 2021년 5월 24일, https://www.chosun.com/economy/tech_it/2021/05/24/PUIPOSFPV5ERHJD3LVEZA7KX7M/; 선담은, “바이든, “한국 기업 대표들 일어나달라”…44조원 대미 투자에 ‘반색’,” 한겨레, 2021년 5월 22일, https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/economy/marketing/996222.html#csidx85b9498583eba15be640bb66aa5bac7 |/Users/lee/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Dreamweaver CS6/ko_KR/OfficeImageTemp/clip_image001_0006.gif” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″>

28. For more on varying roles of middle powers under different types of international systems, see Carsten Holbraad, “The Role of Middle Powers,” Cooperation and Conflict , 1971, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1971), pp. 77-90

29. For more on the decline of liberal order and middle powers, see Nina Græger, “Illiberalism, Geopolitics, and Middle Power Security: Lessons from the Norwegian Case,” International Journal 74, no. 1 (March 2019): 84–102. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020702019834982;  권유정, 손덕호, ‘강경화, 文정부서 ‘백신 확보 늦었다’ 첫 인정…“국제사회와 협력하려다”,’ 조선일보, 2021년 5월 27일, https://biz.chosun.com/policy/politics/2021/05/27/443JWMZE6NDTDKYERUUV53T3JU/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=share&utm_campaign=news

30. While there are existing works on South Korea carving out a middle power identity for itself (for example, see Moch Faisal Karin, “Middle power, status-seeking and role conceptions:
the cases of Indonesia and South Korea, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 72:4, (2018) 343-363; Iain Watson, “South Korea’s changing middle power identities as response to North Korea,” The Pacific Review, 2020, Vol. 33, No.1. 1-31 ), I argue that preference for multilateralism in global governance is not a sufficient condition for a state to take on a middle power role. Instead, I further argue that a state identity takes on a proper meaning and role of middle power when recognized implicitly or explicitly by a great power.
#free and open Indo-Pacific #Quad Plus #Quad summit #trilateralism