As the White House election race enters its final stretch, the world awaits the decision that the American people will make. This includes South Korea, where the Moon Jae-in administration has a clear preference: Joe Biden.
The Democratic candidate has indicated that he will prioritize “working with allies” if he is elected as the new U.S. president. This would mean talking to North Korea. And, potentially, eventually meeting with Kim Jong-un.
North Korea, of course, is far from a U.S. ally. But South Korea is one of Washington’s strongest partners in East Asia. And its president, the liberal Moon, favors engagement with North Korea. This doesn’t necessarily mean starting with Trump-style top-level summits. But it means sustained working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang, leading up to an agreement. And, at the end of negotiations, Biden and Kim meeting to sign on the dotted line.
Within the Moon administration, there are fears that Biden will opt to go back to Obama’s ‘strategic patience’. This would essentially kill off any prospect of resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. Most notably, Seoul has an oven-ready inter-Korean cooperation strategy to implement if and as sanctions on Pyongyang are gradually removed. Strategic patience would keep the oven cold.
Contrary to some analysts’ belief, the Moon administration understands that progress in inter-Korean relations and denuclearization go hand-in-hand. And strategic patience also failed to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program. From Seoul’s perspective, the best way to make Pyongyang take steps towards denuclearization is through engagement and diplomacy. South Korea would ask a Biden administration to talk to North Korea because it actually wants denuclearization.
On this point, the South Korean government envisions a process similar to that presented by North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun in his January 2019 Stanford speech. In other words, a step-by-step process in which the U.S., South Korea and other partners on the one hand and North Korea on the other take reciprocal steps as Pyongyang caps and rolls back its nuclear program.
Crucially, Seoul has no intention of breaching sanctions. They are a matter of international law, which the Moon administration respects. Thus its emphasis on U.S.-North Korea engagement to get the sanctions lifted first.
The Moon administration is thus encouraged by Brian McKeon’s statement that Biden would be willing to meet Kim if necessary. The long-term Biden aide has made clear that this would only come at the end of a working-level process in which the U.S., North Korea and US allies including South Korea would work out an agreement involving Pyongyang’s promise to denuclearize.
This is music to the ears of Seoul, where there has been growing skepticism towards Trump’s bombastic yet ultimately failed attempt to reach a workable deal with Pyongyang.
Crucially for Biden, South Korea would like to decouple discussions about the US-ROK alliance from North Korea’s nuclear program, at least initially. Above all, Seoul doesn’t want Washington to take any more unilateral decisions on the alliance without consultation. From a South Korean perspective, joint exercises or troop numbers are for both partners to decide. South Koreans, for example, were shocked when they learned that Trump had discussed the cancellation of joint exercises during his Singapore summit with Kim in 2018.
This is why Moon welcomes Biden’s promise to work with allies. Allies may have differences. And indeed, the South Korean government understands that there could be frictions with president Biden on issues such as when to resume inter-Korean economic cooperation. But these differences could be negotiated with a U.S. administration that doesn’t openly cast doubt on alliances, as Trump has often done.
In particular, Trump’s heavy-handed approach to SMA negotiations has been counterproductive. A large majority of South Koreans oppose Trump’s demands for a five-fold increase in Seoul’s payments.
Seoul would expect Biden to also ask for Seoul to contribute more towards funding the presence of U.S. troops in South Korean soil. But it also knows that Biden understands the benefits of the US-ROK alliance for Washington itself, and therefore to be more realistic in its demands.
In other words, the Moon administration would like to actually discuss alliance matters were Biden to be elected – not to be dictated by Washington. Since the onset of the Trump presidency, Seoul has witnessed first-hand what it means to live with a U.S. leader who disdains allies. It doesn’t like it.
Eventually and if the U.S. and North Korea reach a deal, the alliance could then again be dealt together with Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Until that happens, however, Moon would push a President Biden to address both issues separately and through a more conventional diplomatic approach. ‘Sleepy Joe Biden’ is what South Korea and the U.S.-ROK alliance need.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo is the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He is the author of “North Korea-US Relations from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un”.
Jihwan Hwang is a Professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Seoul. He is currently a member of the South Korean President’s Commission on Policy Planning.