Biden appoints new North Korea envoy after meeting with South Korean president

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States
President Joe Biden speaks during a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Biden speaks during a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the East Room of the White House on Friday. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

President Biden appointed a special envoy to North Korea on Friday after a White House meeting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, declaring that both leaders are "deeply concerned" about "the continuing threat" of the North's nuclear missile programs.

Although Biden declared that "total denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula remains the U.S. objective, talks have been at an impasse since midway through the Trump administration. The president's appointment of a former U.S. ambassador of Korean descent, Sung Kim, as his envoy to explore diplomatic avenues with North Korea was an overture to Moon, who is eager to cement a legacy of peacemaking before leaving office next year.

Moon said Biden's move showed the "firm commitment of the U.S. for exploring diplomacy" with North Korea. Biden, asked at a joint news conference whether he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, said he would engage the dictator directly only if Kim committed to discuss giving up his nuclear arsenal.

The two presidents emphasized other areas of cooperation in which they made more concrete progress.

Biden said the United States would provide COVID-19 vaccines for South Korea's 550,000 soldiers who work alongside U.S. troops on the peninsula. He announced that South Korean corporations would invest $25 billion in the U.S., and at the news conference asked the executives of several technology companies, who'd traveled from Seoul, to stand for applause.

"These new investments are going to create thousands of good-paying jobs and jobs of the future right here in the United States," Biden said. "And they're going to help fortify and secure the supply chains for things like semiconductors and electric batteries."

Moon also declared that South Korea would increase its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 2030, a commitment the U.S. had been pushing for.

Biden made a point of citing the law he signed Thursday to bolster federal investigation of hate crimes against Asian Americans, which have risen during the pandemic amid a racist backlash stemming from the coronavirus' origin in China.

"Quite frankly, I've been ashamed — ashamed — at the way some Americans have responded," Biden said, as he stood beside Moon, and he promised to continue working to eradicate prejudice.

The presidents' summit presented another opportunity for Biden to shift the United States' foreign policy focus to East Asia as he seeks to strengthen U.S. alliances in the region as a counter to China's rising economic and military power.

However, coming just over a month after Biden hosted Japan's prime minister, the meetings followed a two-week stretch in which his foreign policy focus was diverted to the Middle East, amid a violent conflict between Israel and Palestinians until a cease-fire Friday.

During the leaders' news conference, Biden was questioned about his diplomatic efforts to quell the violence, and about whether his longstanding pro-Israel views have shifted along with those of some other Democrats as opposition builds to Israel's expansion of its occupation of Palestinian territories.

"There is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel. Period. No shift, not at all," Biden said. But he also said the U.S. will work to help the people of Gaza rebuild following days of Israel's devastating missile attacks, and underscored his support for a Palestinian state. "It is the only answer," he said.

Referring to his private conversations during the crisis with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said his refusal to speak out more publicly while the violence raged helped speed cease-fire negotiations along. His aides have described that tack as "quiet, relentless diplomacy."

"I didn't do what other people have done. I don't talk about what I tell people in private," Biden said. "I don't talk about what we negotiate in private."

That approach probably applied as well to Biden's talks with Moon. The two men almost certainly discussed their relations toward China to a greater extent than they openly indicated. The subject went largely unmentioned in their public remarks.

Moon was asked whether Biden had pushed him to take a tougher stance toward China regarding its incursions into the waters near Taiwan, the island nation that China still considers its territory. Moon said only that the two leaders "agreed how important that region is" and vowed to "work closely" on related issues.

The summit began with a ceremonial first aimed at underscoring the close ties between their two nations, as Moon joined Biden in awarding the Medal of Honor to a Korean War veteran, retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett. It was the first time a foreign leader has taken part in the ritual, and the first time Biden has presented the nation's highest military honor as president.

"The strength of the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea was born out of the courage, determination and sacrifice of the Korean troops fighting shoulder to shoulder with American troops," Biden said in welcoming Moon at the ceremony in the East Room. "Having you here today is an important recognition of all that our nations have achieved together."

Puckett, 94, led 51 Army Rangers in fighting off successive waves of enemy counterattacks after his foot was nearly blown off by a grenade. Rescued by his men, who were inspired by his heroism, Puckett recovered from his injuries and went on to serve in the Vietnam War as well.

Biden lauded Puckett, who sat on the dais in full military uniform, as a "true American hero" and said he was "humbled" to have him at the White House for an honor the president said was "70 years overdue."

Moon credited Puckett and American forces broadly with helping to preserve democracy in South Korea. "Col. Puckett and his fellow warriors are a link that binds the U.S. and Korea together," he said.

Moon, who met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on Thursday, began his day at the White House with Vice President Kamala Harris. In a short appearance before reporters, Harris alluded to the close ties between her hometown and South Korea, telling Moon that "the largest Korean diaspora outside of Asia — I think outside of Korea, actually — is where I live, in Los Angeles, California."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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