KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 09/11/2020
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
At the time of writing, US voters seem to have spoken and Joe Biden will emerge as the winner of the 2020 US presidential election. Most reliable media have declared Biden the winner of the election based on votes counted and the electoral votes allocated accordingly. Even though it seems that Donald Trump will litigate the results and will try to have them overturned, other countries will have to operate under the assumption that Biden will become the new US president come January. In the case of South Korea, we can expect the Moon Jae-in government to have an overall positive view of the change in president. In the case of North Korea, its position towards the new president would be less clear.
How is South Korea likely to see a Biden administration?
It is no secret that the Trump presidency has strained the ROK-US alliance. Similarly to other US allies, South Korea was against Trump’s unilateral moves to weaken when not abandon multilateral institutions such as the WTO, the Paris Climate Change Accord or the WHO. Furthermore, Trump routinely criticised South Korea for, in his view, freeriding on the US. And he threatened to impose or raise tariffs on certain South Korean exports. To top it off, Special Measures Agreement negotiations related to how much South Korea should pay to host US troops stationed in the country were paralysed under Trump due to his unrealistic payment increase demands. South Korea will certainly welcome Biden’s support for both the alliance with South Korea and multilateralism. The Moon government would also welcome what is expected to be a less openly confrontational approach towards China. Even though Seoul shares some of Washington’s concerns about Beijing’s behaviour, the Moon government would like to follow South Korea’s long-standing policy of a strong alliance with the US along with friendly ties with China. This entails not openly and directly confronting Beijing.
On North Korea and inter-Korean relations, Seoul certainly welcomed Trump’s high-level summits with Kim Jong-un. However, it should be noted that friendly Trump-Kim relations did not lead to a peace declaration or sanctions relief allowing for inter-Korean economic cooperation – never mind North Korea taking steps towards denuclearisation. Thus, many in the South Korean government had already lost faith in Trump’s erratic approach towards North Korea in the months following the Hanoi summit between the US president and Kim. The Moon government will be buoyed by Biden’s promises to ‘work with allies’, engage in ‘principled diplomacy’ with North Korea, and press toward ‘a unified Korean Peninsula’. For South Korea, this brings the promise of US-North Korea engagement. This would allow the Moon government to continue to press ahead with its preferred approach and goals: diplomacy and economic links to set the conditions for inter-Korean reconciliation and make North Korea choose to take steps towards denuclearisation.
How is North Korea likely to see a Biden administration?
For North Korea, Biden’s election presents a conundrum. The incoming US president has indicated that he will pursue ‘principled diplomacy’, as stated above. This suggests that Biden is willing to pursue engagement but that this will be more traditional; i.e., it would start with working-level discussions, while a top-level summit, if a possibility at all, would only come at the end of the diplomatic process. This also suggests that a Biden administration will also raise issues such as North Korea’s human rights record or missile programme – instead of only focusing on the nuclear issue. So North Korea can see some hope of diplomacy and also that there will be no return to ‘strategic patience’, at least initially. But Pyongyang should expect tougher negotiations with the new US administration – or at least proper negotiations, which never took off under Trump.
Ultimately, North Korea depends on an agreement with the US to be able to develop its economy. Absent an agreement, there will not be sanctions relief or the prospect of large aid inflows and, potentially, foreign investment. So US-North Korea relations under Biden could very well be dictated by Pyongyang’s behaviour and calculus regarding the trade-off between taking steps towards denuclearisation on the one hand and economic development on the other. For example, in 2009 Barack Obama came to office with the idea to continue the Six-Party Talks and engagement processes pursued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. But Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests changed the administration’s calculus. Meanwhile, Trump’s diplomatic push coincided with a period in which the Kim regime halted nuclear and ICBM tests. Therefore, Pyongyang’s high-intensity brinkmanship has proved counterproductive in the past and would be unlikely to steer Biden towards a sustained diplomatic process that would allow North Korea to realise its goals. The ball, therefore, is in North Korea’s court.