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Biden Meets With South Korean President Moon Jae-In At The White House

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There was a stirring ceremony today at the White House. Retired Army Ranger Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr., age 94, stood proudly as President Biden pinned the Medal of Honor around his neck for extraordinary bravery in battle in what is now North Korea 70 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Puckett risked his life by running across the area to draw fire that would reveal the location of the nest. He did it once. He did it again. It took three runs intentionally exposing himself to the enemy to pick off the gunner.

SHAPIRO: The moment was unusual because of who was there for the ceremony, the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. It's the first time a Medal of Honor has been awarded with a foreign leader present. White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe joins us to talk about this. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: What was the symbolism of today's ceremony?

RASCOE: It was meant to really show the strength of the alliance. This was a relationship that started in war. And it's now one of the most important U.S. partnerships in that region. During the Trump administration, there were some dust-ups between the U.S. and South Korea over U.S. funding for military and trade. Giving Moon the honor of being at the ceremony is another attempt at mending some relationships that were frayed a little bit under Trump. And this meeting comes as Biden is trying to deal with some tough issues of his own in Asia. One of the biggest of those is North Korea.

SHAPIRO: How close are the U.S. and South Korea on the issue of North Korea?

RASCOE: There's some overlap there. Biden is trying to do this middle-ground approach where he's not going to seek an all-or-nothing deal with North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons like Trump did. But he's willing to engage in diplomacy. Basically, the White House is open to rewarding incremental progress toward denuclearization with similar small steps to easing pressure on North Korea. Unlike Biden, Moon's term is coming to an end. He's spent a lot of political capital on seeking peace with North Korea. And Moon would likely want the U.S. to take bigger steps to entice North Korea to the negotiating table. That's almost certainly further than the Biden administration will be willing to go. There's no doubt that Moon likely wanted to be further along in talks with North Korea. But like the rest of the world, he's been hamstrung by responding to COVID.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so how is South Korea doing in responding to the pandemic?

RASCOE: South Korea did really well on testing early on and managing with PPP during the pandemic, but now they're having some issues. Sarah Vogler is an analyst with CNA. She has more on this.

SARAH VOGLER: They're lagging a bit now with their vaccine rollout. One of the strong things that the U.S. could do to show its solidarity with South Korea is to help out in the area of vaccines.

RASCOE: And so the thinking is that South Korea may be looking at some - looking for some type of swap, where the U.S. provides vaccines to South Korea now that South Korea needs, and then South Korea can give the U.S. some vaccine doses later on when they have more available to give. The U.S. is under a pressure - a lot of pressure right now from many allies and partners to share the doses that they have. And it's unclear exactly how they plan to work this out, if anything, with South Korea.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe at the White House. Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.