The position of Moon Jae-in’s administration’s throughout the U.S. presidential campaign was clear and consistent throughout: regardless of who wins the election, South Korea is ready to work with the United States on day one and improve the “ironclad” alliance. The message from the South: who sits at the top of the U.S. political hierarchy doesn’t matter—Seoul can, and indeed will, find a way to work with any President the American people elect.
At the very least, Joe Biden’s victory provides Moon’s government with more clarity about what may be in store for the next year and a half of its term. There won’t be any more indecipherable rantings and ravings from the White House about South Korea’s trade practices or jarring comments on the stump about how easy it is to get the South Koreans to fork over cash. There won’t be much unpredictability from the new administration either; unlike Trump, Biden will actually install people into key positions that have are veterans of the national security bureaucracy and therefore know what a good policymaking process is supposed to look like.
For Seoul, the incoming Biden administration also comes with a silver-lining: the cost-sharing issue that has nagged the U.S.-South Korea alliance for the last year will likely be resolved in short order. It’s not that Biden is uninterested in pushing Washington’s allies for more equitable financial arrangements—he’s just not as fixated by it as his predecessor was. If Trump relished torpedoing the talks with Seoul in order to pressure Moon closer to fulfilling his extravagant demands, Biden will relish putting this issue to bed before it takes up any additional time. In an op-ed for Yonhap three days before the U.S. presidential election, Biden summarized his feelings about the Trump administration’s approach to the cost-sharing problem by comparing it to an extortionist trying to wrangle money from a friend. The description likely rings true in the ears of South Korean officials who were unfortunate enough to sit on the other side of the table from Trump’s representatives.
It’s not all positive for the South, however. Sure, Trump was a loud, obnoxious, unconventional figure who flummoxed nearly everybody who came in contact with him. But he was at least willing to shake up Washington’s North Korea policy playbook and rid it of some of its cobwebs. Trump’s decision to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un face-to-face may have been purely motivated by his black hole of an ego, but talks at the top also squared with President Moon’s inherent desire to get diplomacy going as quickly as possible. The fact that Trump was unable to strike a deal with Kim on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons was less the result of Trump’s tactical approach and more an indictment of Washington’s general negotiating position.
With Biden now in the White House, the top-level summitry Moon promoted during Trump’s tenure will be a highly unlikely affair. The President-elect has essentially equated Trump’s summit strategy with an act of appeasement, so discussing the possibility of any high-level sessions between Biden and Kim is an exercise in futility. While South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha came away from a series of meetings in Washington this month fairly confident that a Biden administration would deviate from the strategic-patience policy of the Obama years, there has been nothing in Biden’s remarks thus far that leads one to believe his policy will be markedly different. Indeed, judging from the comments made by some of Biden’s top foreign policy advisers, the next four years of U.S. North Korea policy could be eerily similar to the usual muddle we have all grown used to.
This could potentially put a serious wrinkle in any diplomatic overtures the Moon administration may want to execute next year. Despite the inter-Korean reconciliation process being in a holding pattern since the summer, Moon himself has never given up on resurrecting talks with his neighbor to the north. Nor has his government; on November 18, Unification Minister Lee In-young yet again floated unconditional dialogue with Pyongyang “at any place and at any time if North Korea accepts the offer.”
As much as Washington and Seoul like to talk up the U.S.-South Korea alliance as an unbreakable machine, the reality is that ties between them are often strained when North Korea is at the center of the discussion. While the United States and South Korea may ultimately have the same long-term, impractical objective (denuclearization of the North), the two have vastly different methods for getting there—particularly if the Blue House is led by a liberal administration. Washington tends to put the nuclear issue front-and-center, with everything else South Korea cares about—stable relations with Pyongyang being the most obvious—on the backburner. The South Korean government, particularly under Moon, has never thought Washington’s sequence was especially productive—and given the results, it’s hard to disagree with him.
When all was said and done, Donald Trump didn’t allow South Korea to have its own North Korea policy. This is the product in large part of the spiderweb of U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions that prevent even the most minor inter-Korean economic exchanges without Washington’s say-so. With Joe Biden preparing to move back to Washington, Moon Jae-in and his advisers in the unification and foreign affairs ministries will be watching to see if the new U.S. administration will any different on this score than the last.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist at Newsweek and a contributor to the National Interest.