President Moon Jae-in has met his American counterpart President Joe Biden for the first time since the latter’s election on Friday, May the 21st, 2021. The summit has focused on peninsula denuclearisation, upgrading the anti-Chinese high-tech axis, and cooperation on COVID-19 vaccines. In this article, part of a series dedicated to Moon Jae-in last year of presidency, we will mention some of the most critical moments during his administration.
Moon Jae-in’s administration was characterised by moments of historical significance for the Korean peninsula, first, the meeting with the Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, or de facto Head of State of the Democratic Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un, in April 2018. The third inter-Korean summit in history, and the first in eleven years, took place in the village of Panmunjom, on the South Korean side of the Unification Pavilion; following the summit, the homonymous declaration. It represents both countries’ commitment to signing a declaration of peace and the peninsula’s denuclearisation.
Between the two Korean states, the 1953 armistice is formally still in force, signed in the same village of Panmunjom. Moreover, it is precisely from the signing of that treaty that a North Korean head of state does not enter the territory of South Korea, making that a meeting of historical significance. Two more will follow the April 2018 meeting during the same year: the one in May held this time in the North Korean area of the Panmunjom Pavilion, and another one in September, in Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic Republic.
The driving force behind the thaw towards the North was one of the battle horses in the then-candidate Moon Jae-in electoral campaign. However, the conservative opposition has often criticised him for holding a soft stance towards China and the People’s Republic. Following the various economic and political crises in the real estate sector, the current president’s party suffered two heavy defeats in the administrative elections of April 2021.
The denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula
The May 2021 summit did not constitute a change of course in South Korean foreign policy. President Joe Biden himself, according to a statement by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, recognises that currently the best diplomatic posture to implement towards North Korea is “weighted and calibrated”. This approach applies well to a Moon-led South Korea, which, far from attracting the wraths of Beijing and Pyongyang, has always used a relaxed tone in relations with the latter.
Several factors may attempt to explain this “delicate” approach that the president of the United States intends to apply towards the Korean peninsula: first of all, the need to balance the tones that his predecessor, Donald Trump, used towards Secretary Kim Jong-un (“fire and fury“); exploit South Korean ambivalence (close to the United States, but far from the FOIP strategy) in order not to preclude any possible alternative; finally, the difficulty of forecasting the outcome of the following political elections in South Korea. The polls on Moon’s probable successor change with each passing day. In such a context, characterised by high uncertainty, it seems reasonable to think that the best approach is not to throw off balance and not to throw a critical ally in the Indo-Pacific while strengthening ties with the Quad.
The technological alliance
During the summit, another topic of vital importance was constructing a high-tech production chain; South Korea is competing for the importance of semiconductor producing country with Taiwan and of South Korean nationality are the leading manufacturers of batteries for electric vehicles. The question must necessarily be read concerning the decoupling between China and the United States since President Joe Biden himself signed, shortly after his election, an executive order aimed at building the production chain outside the sphere of influence of the Dragon.
While South Korean multinationals invest substantial amounts of money to build factories on US soil, they are doing the same at home. Although South Korea may have access to the US domestic market, giving up the Chinese one could represent a significant loss of profits for the multinationals of the Country of the Calm Morning. Furthermore, the recent lack of supply of vital components for semiconductors, parts manufactured by a Dutch company, which has preferred to supply to Taiwan, could represent considerable economic and financial damage for Samsung, according to analysts at Nikkei Asia.
It would be a mistake to think that there is a cause-and-effect relationship behind China’s isolation in high-tech matters and the recent shortage of electronic components, just as it would be a mistake to believe that economic and political conditions are not strongly interconnected: the executive order of the US president could lead to the hypothesis that the semiconductor crisis is solely due to the political context; however, the increase in demand for electronic components caused by the pandemic has, in fact, significantly reduced the supply before the Atlantic power adopted the current political and economic posture towards Beijing.
The economic context reduces the relative weight of the executive order. Just as Huawei was recently removed from the US blacklist of Chinese companies considered dangerous in terms of security, it would not be surprising if the adjustment of semiconductor production were not followed by a relaxation of economic relations between China and the United States. On the other hand, we have already seen that the decoupling between the two is not as evident as it would seem, both regarding the electronic components and the supply of raw materials necessary for the industry in question. But even within the anti-Chinese bloc itself, competition in production is stiff: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the United States and even the European Union are launching financial and fiscal policies to encourage the opening of factories within their borders.Basically, the meeting between the two presidents was marked by the expected continuation of the state of things, no particular statement, no shocking news. Even North Korea, when this article was written, a week after the meeting, was still silent on the matter. In short, it was an encounter that had minimal history.