President Biden will privately pressure South Korean President Moon Jae-in to sign on to a strong statement critical of China when Mr. Moon visits the White House on Friday, but he will likely face resistance over South Korean fears that it would trigger an economic backlash from Beijing.
A range of other issues will be on the table for Friday’s summit at the White House, where Mr. Biden and Mr. Moon will take pains to advertise the strength of the bilateral alliance and project an image of unity in dealing with a hostile and unpredictable North Korea.
But analysts and sources close to the administration say Mr. Biden will have to address widening divisions between Washington and Seoul on confronting China.
Mr. Biden will also likely seek South Korean support for Washington’s push to solidify the “Quad” security alignment of the U.S. and the major regional democracies — India, Australia and Japan — as a way to contain Beijing.
Specifically, analysts say, Mr. Biden will privately urge Mr. Moon to follow the example of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga set during his visit to the White House last month.
Mr. Suga and Mr. Biden issued a joint statement criticizing what they called communist China’s increasingly aggressive and anti-democratic behavior, including its “unlawful maritime claims” and “use of economic and other forms of coercion” to bully smaller nations in regional territorial and economic disputes.
“Moon’s visit to the White House is going to be measured against Suga’s visit, which was seen as very successful,” said Bruce Klingner, a former high-level CIA official in Korea now with The Heritage Foundation. He said Mr. Suga’s outspokenness on China raised eyebrows among pro-democracy advocates.
“Suga came out with pretty strong criticisms of China for human rights violations in Hong Kong and against the Uyghurs in China, as well as for Beijing’s belligerent tactics in the East and South China seas, and for its intimidation of Taiwan,” Mr. Klingner said in an interview.
Noting the long rivalry between Seoul and Tokyo over which is the closer ally to Washington, Mr. Klingner said Mr. Suga “set a very high bar” for Mr. Moon’s visit to the White House and for “what allies should do in calling out Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific region.”
South Korean sources said Mr. Moon has his own priorities for the White House meeting.
South Korean press accounts noted increasing anxiety when Mr. Moon wound up well down the list of global leaders whom Mr. Biden called during his first weeks in office.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Moon will hold a joint press conference after their private talks Friday.
Mr. Moon will visit Capitol Hill on Thursday and will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris ahead of his discussions with Mr. Biden.
The South Korean president also will attend a groundbreaking ceremony Friday to construct the Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial and will visit a South Korean firm’s electric car battery plant in Atlanta on Saturday.
The South Korean leader has “high expectations” for his first overseas trip since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes to speed deliveries of U.S.-made vaccines to his country and strike a deal on technology transfer to make the shots domestically, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
Mr. Moon has long favored diplomatic engagement with the North and backed President Trump’s unorthodox personal outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He now wants to work with the new administration in Washington on containing and rolling back the North’s nuclear and missile arsenals.
“Love letters” and a pair of full-fledged summits between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim failed to produce the breakthrough Mr. Moon sought, and the Biden administration is trying to thread the needle between the strategies of the past two administrations.
The Obama administration took a more aloof approach, dubbed “strategic patience,” during Mr. Biden’s time as vice president. President Obama hoped North Korea would change its belligerent behavior in exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic support. The Biden administration has concluded its first formal policy review on the problem of North Korea but has offered few hard details publicly.
“Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in late April. “Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with [North Korea] and to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies and deployed forces.”
The Biden team also has indicated that it will try to build on one concrete outcome of the Trump administration’s approach: the 2018 Singapore declarations in which Mr. Kim pledged to “work toward” a “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“Our policy review took a careful look at everything that has been tried before,” Kurt Campbell, White House policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, told the South Korean Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday. “Our efforts will build on Singapore and other agreements made by previous administrations.”
Yonhap also reported that the Moon administration has been coy about whether South Korea might be floated as a member of the “Quad” should the issue come up during this week’s summit. Analysts say it’s doubtful that Mr. Moon will go as far with public criticism of China as Mr. Suga did during his White House visit.
“It’s really unlikely that Moon is going to be able to meet that bar,” Mr. Klingner said. He maintains that the South Korean president is likely to cling to what has long been a policy of avoiding entanglement in the growing great-power competition between the United States and China.
“South Korea will repeat the adage that when the whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken,” he said.
Seoul remains wary of ticking off its biggest trading partner. China long ago surpassed the U.S. as the biggest export and import market for South Korea. According to official estimates, a quarter of all South Korean exports went to China in 2019, and Beijing has not hesitated to use access to its markets as a weapon in bilateral clashes with Seoul.
The Quad push is particularly tricky for Mr. Moon. China has fiercely condemned the idea of what it sees as a budding NATO-style alliance in Asia aimed at strangling China geopolitically.
The most significant backlash was after Seoul reluctantly allowed the U.S. military to deploy an advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield to South Korea in 2017. Although South Korea was acting in response to the North’s missile threats, Chinese leaders saw it as a threat to its own missile capabilities. Beijing responded by encouraging a boycott of South Korean companies and even putting an embargo on wildly popular K-pop music to China.
“China’s economic coercion during the THAAD deployment dispute … drove a wedge in U.S.-South Korean relations and revealed Seoul’s economic vulnerability to China,” said Kuyoun Chung, a political scientist at South Korea’s Kangwon National University.
In an analysis published recently by the East Asia Forum, Mr. Chung said South Korea is among several nations in the region that have been reluctant to embrace Washington’s push to expand the U.S.-India-Australia-Japan grouping into a “Quad-plus” that includes smaller countries on China’s periphery.
“The uncertain end-state of U.S.-China competition — as well as concern over potential Chinese economic coercion — are impacting their decision,” Mr. Chung wrote. “South Korea, like other middle powers in the region, has hedged against the risk of great-power competition and focused on its own foreign policy priority — North Korea.”
“The Moon Jae-in administration prioritizes foreign policy goals aimed at improving inter-Korean relations as a way to denuclearize the North’s nuclear weapons and sustain the peace process on the Korean Peninsula,” he wrote. “As long as North Korea is the core driver of South Korea’s foreign policy, Seoul needs to maintain a good relationship with China — North Korea’s main benefactor — to preserve the momentum of inter-Korean dialogue. This explains Seoul’s relatively accommodating foreign policy attitude towards China.”
⦁ Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.