Editor’s Note: As Election Day rapidly approaches, and with it, a potential change of presidential administration, the Center for the National Interest’s Korean Studies team decided to ask dozens of the world’s top experts a simple question: If Joe Biden wins come November, what do you expect his North Korea policy to look like? The below piece is an answer to that question. Please click here to see even more perspectives on this important topic.
With the national conventions over, the countdown to the U.S. presidential election has truly begun. The rest of the world will spend the next two months pondering who will be U.S. president on November 4, while also quietly wishing that it could cast a vote for its preferred candidate.
The South Koreans are no exception. And if they could, they would probably vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
A common misconception is to reduce South Korea’s foreign policy interests to North Korea alone. However, this hasn’t been the case for a long time now. And after four years of Donald Trump in power, South Korea has had a taste of how it feels to deal with a U.S. president who doesn’t value allies.
The list of issues creating frictions, when not outright conflict, between Washington and Seoul is long. The Trump administration is demanding an extortionate five-fold increase in the amount that South Korea pays to host U.S. troops under the Special Measures Agreement. The United States and South Korea may have renegotiated KORUS, the bilateral free trade agreement between the countries, but Trump still threatens tariffs on South Korean exports such as steel and aluminum. Seoul cherishes multilateral cooperation, yet Washington is undermining the WTO, has announced its withdrawal from the WHO, and already left the Paris Climate Change agreement.
From a South Korean perspective, a Biden presidency holds the promise of a “return to normal.” This would include bilateral negotiations underpinned by mutual interests rather than hostility. It would also include greater resort to multilateralism from Washington.
Above all, a president Biden would value the alliance with Seoul. Something as simple as this would be an improvement over the current situation, even if frictions are inevitable.
Indeed, the biggest problem between a president Biden and the Moon Jae-in government would be over North Korea. Seoul favors an engagement-first approach. A Biden administration might be tempted to return to “strategic patience,” despite the failure of this policy.
In private, however, the Moon administration is confident that there won’t be a strategic patience redux. Three reasons underpin this belief.
To begin with, the North Korea of today is not the North Korea of the Barack Obama years. It is a de facto nuclear power with the capability to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland. There is little to be patient about at this point.
In addition, Obama had the support of presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye in his approach. Both of them put pressure over engagement. This is not the case with Moon.
Biden has promised to talk to allies. In the case of South Korea, Seoul will press for a degree of engagement even as sanctions remain in place. Any U.S. policy towards North Korea without an engagement component would be constrained.
Finally, many in the Moon government are tired of the Trumpian “yo-yo approach” to North Korea—from “fire and fury” in 2017, to top-level meetings in 2018 and the first half of 2019, to essentially no policy for over a year now. Seoul would rather have a proper diplomatic process involving working-level talks on a range of issues. A Biden presidency holds this promise. A re-elected Trump does not.
On the North Korean side, there is no way of knowing for sure whether it would rather have Trump or Biden in the Oval Office. But the argument that Pyongyang wants Trump re-elected to go straight to the top while continuing to develop its weapons programs is over-simplistic.
Before North Korea shut down its borders due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pyongyang’s officials were indicating in private their willingness to sign an agreement with the United States. Not with Trump specifically.
This matters. If North Korea is willing to reach a deal to trade off parts of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and other benefits, it doesn’t matter that much whether it is Trump or Biden who sits across Kim Jong-un on the negotiation table. What matters most is what concessions would North Korea be willing to put on that table.
After all, Biden has tweeted that his preferred approach to North Korea is “principled engagement.” The engagement part is the one that will have caught the attention of Pyongyang.
Furthermore, North Korea has always known that implementation of any deal with a U.S. president has to carry enough support in Washington. A future president might leave the agreement, as Trump did with the Iran nuclear deal. Congress might withhold funding for the deal to be implemented, as was the case with the Agreed Framework. A well-designed agreement has a better chance to survive Washington’s politics than an ill-thought arrangement. Biden is more likely than Trump to deliver on this front.
In short, Trump is actually right that Kim would knock on Biden’s door to try to reach a deal if he wins the election.
Ultimately, it is North Korea that needs a deal with the United States more than the other way around. Without it, Kim won’t be able to deliver on his promise of a better economic future for the North Korean population. And North Korea won’t have an embassy in Washington, DC, the ultimate marker for Kim to show that his is a “normal” country.
If Biden ends up winning the election, expect South Korea to celebrate. And don’t expect North Korea to mourn. Kim has exchanged multiple letters with Trump. He could well trade off those letters in exchange for a proper agreement with Biden.
Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader in International Relations at King’s College London. He is the author of North Korea-US Relations from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un (2019).