U.S. President Joe Biden, right, speaks as Moon Jae-in, South Korea's president, listens during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Friday. File Photo by Erin Scott/UPI | License Photo
May 21 (UPI) -- U.S. President Joe Biden said North Korea continues to pursue the development of nuclear weapons but lack of progress on denuclearization does not mean he will forgo diplomacy.
Biden said during a joint news conference at the White House with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the two leaders are committed to the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" in order to "increase security for the United States and our allies."
But Biden also said he would not pursue the kind of engagement that would give Kim Jong Un "all this international recognition and legitimacy," a reference to past U.S.-North Korea summits where leaders met before a final deal may have been reached.
The president said his Cabinet would "know exactly what we're meeting on" before another summit with Kim.
Biden met for the first time with Moon, who is in his final year of office. Back home, Moon's ruling Democratic Party was crushed in by-elections held in his nation's two biggest cities. The South Korean leader's approval rating also has plummeted since last year and has remained in the 30% range amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.
Biden, who called Kim a "thug" during his presidential campaign, showed a willingness to move beyond the "strategic patience" of the Obama administration. The president stopped short of expressing support for the approach taken by former President Donald Trump, however.
During the joint briefing, Moon said the Biden administration had agreed to move in a direction outlined in the 2018 U.S.-North Korea declaration made in Singapore. The statement called for efforts to "build a lasting and stable peace regime" on the Korean Peninsula.
Biden did not refer to the Singapore declaration signed by Trump, though the statement was mentioned in the two leaders' joint statement issued by the White House.
Moon, who struggled to maintain good relations with Trump amid Trump's demand for a five-fold increase in Seoul's defense contributions for U.S. troops, credited Biden with concluding the Special Measures Agreement in March. The completion of the $1.05 billion deal, which analysts have said is critical to the alliance, "displays the robustness" of the U.S.-South Korea relationship, Moon said.
Biden and Moon appeared convivial with each other at the White House, where they held an expanded summit meeting with members of their respective Cabinets. The meeting ran overtime Friday.
Terry Roehrig, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told UPI that judging by language and optics, the alliance appears to be headed in the right direction.
But Moon's proposal at the White House to continue diplomacy with the North is disappointing some observers.
Hyun Seung Lee, a North Korea-born consultant and a former member of the Korean Workers' Party, now resettled in Washington, D.C., told UPI by email that statements referring to Moon's policy of "complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula" are disappointing. The statements indicate no new approaches are being proposed amid stalled talks with North Korea, he said.
"It seems that the two leaders do not know what comes first or last when it comes to the issue of North Korea," Lee said, referring to Moon's appetite for unconditional diplomacy and outreach before North Korea shows a commitment to denuclearization.
"Denuclearization cannot be achieved without resolving the human rights issue in North Korea. There also can be no lasting peace in a country without freedom and human rights," Lee said.
Casey Choi, president of Korean American Public Action Committee, a U.S.-based non-profit that advocates for engagement between the two Koreas, recently hosted U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., for an online forum on Korean Peninsula peace.
Choi told UPI that the United States should sign a peace declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War because it would lead to an opening up of the North and subsequent improvements for the country's impoverished population.
"When [the United States and South Korea] build mutual trust with North Korea and remove fears over regime stability, the North will stop nuclear and missile development. This would enable Pyongyang to implement practical policies for the North Korean people, and accelerate the improvement of human rights in North Korea," Choi said.
Medal of Honor ceremony
President Joe Biden (R) congratulates Medal of Honor recipient Army Col. Ralph Puckett during a ceremony at the White House. Puckett was honored for his service in the Korean War almost 70 years ago. Pool Photo by Stefani Reynolds/UPI
Moon also was in attendance when Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency to retired 94-year-old U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. for his actions during the Korean conflict. Moon is the first foreign leader to attend a presidential Medal of Honor ceremony.
Biden told Moon it was "a real honor" to have him at the event. Biden and Moon posed for photos with Puckett and his family at the end of the ceremony.
Biden called Puckett "a true American hero," adding that it was an award "long overdue."
Biden invited Moon to speak at the ceremony and the South Korean leader called Puckett "a true hero of the Korean War." He said without the sacrifices of men like Puckett, South Koreans could not enjoy the democracy they have today.
Moon said the acts of gallantry and sacrifice of U.S. soldiers in the Korean conflict "will always be remembered."
Fred Lash, director of communication for the Korean War Veterans Association, told UPI by phone that the alliance between the two countries evokes "really strong feelings" among veterans who fought in Korea between 1950 and 1953.
"They see Pohang, Busan, areas with huge ports, some of them the best in the world," Lash said.
"They think about what South Korea was like in '50-'53 and what it would be like right now if they hadn't helped out. They feel really good about what they did in Korea, and the nation that it is today."