The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific policy is taking shape. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that U.S. President Joe Biden will meet virtually on March 12 with his counterparts in the Quad — Japan, India and Australia — and that it would be the first time that the Quad is meeting “at the leader level.”
The office of the Indian prime minister echoed the announcement, saying that the Quad summit “will discuss regional and global issues of shared interest, and exchange views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” including COVID-19, economic cooperation and the climate crisis.
“This will become a feature of Indo-Pacific engagement,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters earlier in Sydney, and Tokyo officially confirmed the Quad summit. Although none of them have named a specific country, everybody in the media suspects that the Quad seeks to counter China’s rising influence in the region.
While the Quad leaders meet online, South Korea is conducting a scaled-back nine-day joint exercise with U.S. forces, after reaching a new cost-sharing agreement with the United States. Seoul seems to be desperate in trying to maintain cordial relations with Washington without infuriating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Will Seoul consider joining the Quad? My answer was “hardly” last October. That was because South Korea’s then Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha had stated that “if that’s a structured alliance, we will certainly think very hard whether it serves our security interests” and that Seoul had “never been invited” to be part of the Quad.
Yet, that is not a foregone conclusion. The Hill recently ran an article with the headline, “Seoul sees hope in Biden’s North Korea approach.” It suggests that the administration of Korean President Moon Jae-in is considering “whether to join a potential Quad+ to show its commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance and, indirectly, influence Biden’s North Korea policy.”
Moon’s ultimate goal is to achieve reconciliation with North Korea but his efforts to use former U.S. President Donald Trump never bore fruit. Now, Seoul may consider joining the Quad and hopefully influencing, if not convincing, the Biden administration to review its North Korea policy. Unfortunately, this may not work for the following reasons.
You can’t fool Biden
Trump never appreciated foreign policy. The former president — suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, a pattern of exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive craving for admiration and challenges with empathy — wanted to meet with Kim Jong Un simply because none of his predecessors had done it before.
Trump and Kim met three times altogether, without making any breakthrough in the negotiations to denuclearize North Korea. Both Trump and Kim lost confidence in Moon because what he had told them separately was inconsistent.
Four years ago, Moon was lucky because his counterpart was Trump. Now that the U.S. president is Joe Biden, a no-nonsense politician with more than 40 years of experience in foreign policy, Moon will find it difficult to influence the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review process.
The Iran model won’t work
The article in The Hill asserted that Washington is considering “a more realistic approach” toward North Korea, hinting that the U.S. and South Korea can follow the example of the so-called 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested in 2018.
“In other words,” the article writes, “the U.S. and North Korea could start with an arms control deal that would cap and begin to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.” The authors of the article may not fully understand the critical deficiencies of the JCPOA.
In fact, the abortive JCPOA not only failed to fully terminate the nuclear program of Iran but also acquiesced on Iran’s development of long-range ballistic missiles as well as its political and military interventions in various parts of the Middle East. In a nutshell, the JCPOA was not a successful example at best, if not a complete failure. More importantly, while Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, North Korea has many.
A free and open Indo-Pacific
The authors of The Hill’s article also claim that during the Trump administration, “South Korea had no incentive to join an anti-China Quad. But the Biden administration wants to shift the Quad toward a group of like-minded countries.” Yet, the Quad is still by no means a group of pro-China countries.
“This is more to the linking of the Moon government,” the article continues, “which could see membership of a Quad+ as a means to further strengthen links with the U.S. and gain support for some of its foreign policy goals.” The authors of the article completely misunderstand the essence of the concept of the Quad.
If South Korea is interested in joining the Quad, it must first understand the concept of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Japan joined the Quad not because it wanted to “further strengthen links with the United States.” It is because Tokyo shares common interests in the FOIP with other members of the multilateral strategic forum.
South Korea may be destined to fail if it only tries to use the Quad for the purpose of persuading the Biden administration to accept and support Moon’s personal agenda. In Japanese, we say “There aren’t always loaches (freshwater fish) under the willow tree,” which is roughly equivalent to the saying, “There are no birds in last year’s nest.” One’s luck runs out.
Joe Biden is no Donald Trump. Period. The Biden administration should not, and most likely will not, repeat the same mistakes the Trump administration made vis-a-vis North Korea. Meanwhile, Moon should stop daydreaming and mothball his personal but unrealistic agenda for North Korea.