By Jarrett Renshaw and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in hailed the strength of the U.S.-South Korea alliance after the strains of the Trump era on Friday to kick off a day of talks expected to be dominated by North Korea, China and COVID-19 vaccines.
Shortly after Moon arrived at the White House, he and Biden joined together to award the Medal of Honor to 94-year-old Korean War veteran Ralph Puckett, a retired U.S. army colonel, for his valor in a 1950 battle over a strategic hill. He was fighting Chinese troops in North Korea.
It was the first time a foreign leader had attended a Medal of Honor ceremony, which Biden called a testament to the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Moon said Puckett was an example of the strength of the alliance, which he called “a linchpin of peace and security on the Korean peninsula and beyond.”
The two leaders were to hold a joint news conference at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).
Moon began the day by meeting U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and in that session he took an apparent jab at Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who had badgered Moon as a weak leader and threatened to pull U.S. troops from South Korea.
Moon referenced the Biden team’s work in COVID-19 vaccine distribution and the U.S. economy.
“My congratulations on how the Biden-Harris administration is building back better with the world’s most successful vaccine deployment and fastest economic recovery, and blazing a trail for inclusiveness and unity by restoring the soul of America,” Moon said.
Trump oversaw a strong economy until the novel coronavirus struck in early 2020 and was credited for encouraging the quick development of vaccines.
Harris told Moon that she and Biden would work together with South Korea for a “free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region – a region that is unconstrained by coercion and anchored in international rules and order.
“Today we will discuss a broad range of issues, including our strong partnership, as well as the challenges that exist on the Korean Peninsula,” she said.
As well as the perennial issue of North Korean nuclear weapons, the allies will discuss regional security more broadly, cooperation in high-tech industries such as microchips, efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic and stronger action on climate change.
Moon, under pressure at home over his COVID-19 response, will be hoping to secure an agreement with Washington for stopgap supplies of vaccines, while the Biden administration is looking for enhanced climate commitments from Seoul.
Moon approached his Washington visit hoping it would provide fresh impetus to his dream of building peace with North Korea, but U.S. officials have played down the prospect of a dramatic fresh initiative.
South Korean officials were heartened by Biden’s North Korea policy review, which called for a focus on practical diplomatic steps to reduce tensions while maintaining a final goal of persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
A South Korean presidential official said a joint U.S.-South Korean statement will embrace a 2018 agreement between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that vowed to improve relations and work for complete denuclearization of the peninsula.
“We had made much contribution to the U.S. policy review, and endorsing the agreement could be a sign of their respect and acknowledgement,” the official told reporters in Washington.
Moon and Biden will also discuss abolishing a U.S. guideline limiting the range of any South Korean missiles to up to 800 km (500 miles), and ways to boost civilian nuclear plant exports together, the official added.
But the pandemic, economic and political challenges, as well as crises elsewhere, have shifted the North Korea issue to the back burner, complicating Moon’s hopes of cementing a peacemaker legacy before leaving office next year.
Washington would like to see a forthright statement from Moon on China’s ever more assertive behavior in the region. Last month, when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited, Biden sought to present a united front toward Beijing.
Seoul has been cautious for fear of angering China, its top trading partner. In a visit to Capitol Hill on Thursday, Moon stressed the importance of stable Washington-Beijing ties and China’s importance in connection with Korean Peninsula affairs.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Jarrett Renshaw and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Katanga Johnson in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)