US, South Korea leaders aim to smooth alliance

By Jeong-Ho Lee
Bloomberg News/TNS

SEOUL, South Korea - President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in agreed in a call to upgrade their partnership, seeking to shore up an alliance shaken by Trump administration policies.

“I welcomed ‘America’s return’ in the midst of mounting global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change and economic polarization,” Moon said on his Facebook page after his phone call with Biden on Thursday.

Ties between the allies were tested under former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly accused South Korea of short-changing the U.S and demanded a fivefold increase in payments to support the 28,500 American troops based there. In October, the Trump administration further strained the seven-decade alliance when, for the first time, it withheld the U.S. commitment to maintaining troop levels in South Korea.

“Biden and I pledged to further upgrade the ROK-U.S. alliance, an alliance that is anchored in shared values,” Moon said, referring to South Korea by its formal name. “We will always stand together as we work for peace on the Korean Peninsula and tackle global challenges.”

Biden said in an interview with Yonhap News just ahead of the U.S. election, he won’t be “extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.” The two sides have been deadlocked for more than a year in the funding talks, after Trump sought about $5 billion a year from South Korea, well above the $900 million in a stopgap one-year agreement that expired at the start of 2020.

The call comes weeks after Moon said he anticipates an early summit with Biden to revive nuclear talks with North Korea. The Trump administration made little progress in winding down Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions despite three face-to-face meetings between the U.S. president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim marked Biden’s election win by calling the U.S. a “war monster,” just before the then president-elect moved into the White House in January. That month, Kim also said at a major ruling party meeting, he would put North Korea on a path to develop more advanced nuclear technologies and missiles, sending a chilling warning to Biden that the Asian leader is ready to ratchet up security tensions.

The Biden administration has indicated it may be ready to ease sanctions in exchange for steps by Kim to freeze, cap and wind down his atomic arsenal. That could help Kim fix an economy that has only gotten smaller since he took power about a decade ago.