US-South Korea Alliance to Speed Vaccines, Renew Talks With North Korea

At bilateral talks with President Joe Biden and South Korea President Moon Jae-in, pragmatic diplomacy was the theme driving solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic and foreign policy quagmires.

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Friday in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Amid bilateral talks with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on Friday covering everything from global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic to the denuclearization of North Korea, for President Joe Biden, it was diplomacy all the way down.

The deadly conflict between Israel and Gaza has prompted the nascent Biden administration to spend the last 11 days dealing with its first complex foreign policy hurdle and the White House is now also poised to wrangle with the ubiquitous diplomatic question many presidents have faced before: How do you solve a problem like nuclearization in North Korea?  

Both Biden and Jae-in said they were interested in lowering the temperature with Pyongyang and Biden said under the right conditions he would consider a meeting with Kim Jong Un but only if the leader of North Korea would vow to discuss his nuclear arsenal at those talks.

“I would not do what had been done in the recent past. I would not give him all he is looking for, international recognition as legitimate and allow him to move in the direction of appearing to be more serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about,” Biden said Friday.

Late last month, the administration completed its first review of U.S.-North Korea affairs, announcing its conclusion that policymaking for the peninsula moving forward, particular to denuclearization efforts, would not be done by way of achieving some “grand bargain” — a style employed by former President Donald Trump.

Nor, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in April, would it include a “strategic patience” method, something the Obama administration relied heavily upon when Biden was still veep. Instead, it will be “practical” calibrations that the U.S. makes with its North Korea policy so greater peace and stability is maintained globally and perhaps most presciently for its neighbor South Korea.

Jae-in said he shared Biden’s “pragmatic approach” to North Korea and Biden affirmed the two nations’ alliance. America and South Korea’s “history of shared sacrifice” is critical to maintaining peace, he underlined.

Ahead of the joint press conference, Biden awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr. for acts of “conspicuous gallantry” during the Korean War with President Jae-in also attending the ceremony.

According to the White House, when the now 94-year-old veteran was just a first lieutenant in his twenties, he was in the middle of a daylight attack, taking mortar and machine gun fire from advancing Korean forces. To protect fellow officers from harm, he mounted a tank, exposed himself to enemy fire and rallied U.S. Rangers into the fray.

But one platoon was left in a tight spot and other soldiers were still in danger, so Puckett Jr. left his own safe position and took off running across an open area three times to lure enemy fire in his direction, giving Rangers a chance to not only move their position but to destroy the enemy position as well.

‘Why all the fuss? Can’t they just mail it to me?” Puckett Jr. joked with Biden Friday as he accepted the medal.

The president replied: “Your lifetime of service to our nation, I think, deserves a little bit of fuss.”

Notably, both Jae-in and Biden knelt beside Puckett for his photo Friday and Puckett accepted his medal standing without assistance from his wheelchair.

Meetings went long throughout the day and Jae-in told reporters the two nations were mutually enthusiastic about the “increasing cases of successful cooperation” between American and South Korean business, especially the manufacture of semiconductors and batteries. But most critically, Jae-in said, it will be the “marrying” of America’s biomedicine technology and South Korea’s advanced production capabilities that will accelerate distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Biden announced Friday the U.S. would provide vaccinations for 550,000 Korean military service members who work in close proximity to American forces in the weeks ahead.  A partnership to supercharge the production of vaccines will produce as many as another billion doses of vaccine, the White House said. That gigantic roll out is expected to begin this summer and continue into early 2022.

When Jae-in said Friday that South Korea would focus on vaccinating the whole Indo-Pacific region as a part of the new found partnership, Biden heaped praise on the dignitary: “This is what I like about this president: He’s not just talking about the United States or just Korea, he’s talking about the Indo-Pacific. He’s talking about the world.”

Though the future of South Korea and U.S. relations took center stage at Friday’s news conference, talk of prospects for peace between Israel and Gaza also emerged.

After 11 days of violence, over 248 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces — including 66 children — and nearly 2,000 Gazans were reported injured. Israel has reported 13 deaths due to Hamas. A ceasefire, as of Friday evening, has now held for a single day following negotiations brokered in public and private by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and the U.S.

The destruction in Gaza will take years to mend. Biden vowed to assist the region emphatically Friday saying that the “United States should be in Gaza, rebuilding Gaza and helping those innocent people who have been hurt as well as insisting that Israeli citizens, whether they are Arab or Jew, are treated equally.”

“Bibi, the prime minister knows my views,” Biden said, adding that he supports only a two-state solution.

The president also said that in the days ahead America would form a coalition with other nations who shared the view that homes destroyed in Gaza must be rebuilt.

“And without reengaging Hamas or giving them an opportunity to rebuild their weapons system,” he said.

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