Despite Antipathy to Trump, South Korea Wouldn't Celebrate a Biden Win
There will be serious limits to the extent South Korea’s policymakers will have cause to celebrate if Washington continues to view the Korean Peninsula as a theatre of China–US strategic rivalry.
The unorthodox nature of Washington’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula over the past four years has triggered hope among some US-based experts that a Biden–Harris victory would inject vitality in the South Korea–US alliance. Issues ranging from the exceedingly long delay in appointing an ambassador to South Korea to the standoff over defence cost-sharing have placed the alliance under strain.
The sum of the stress placed on the South Korea–US defence partnership, combined with China’s carrot-and-stick approach to South Korea — punitive economic measures over missile defence followed by a diplomatic charm offensive — means that alliance relations face a challenging future regardless of the November election winner.
Reflecting on this reality with unusual candour, South Korea’s Ambassador to the United States Lee Soo-hyuck asserted that Seoul may not always stand on Washington’s side, a comment pertinent in the context of Beijing’s economic leverage over the country. To be sure, Lee’s position is not necessarily reflective of official South Korean foreign policy, as his comments drew reproach from ROK foreign minister Kang Kyung-hwa herself. Nevertheless, amidst the fallout over Lee’s remarks, former ROK ambassador to the US Choi Sung-jin asserted that such frankness was acceptable is South Korea and the United States truly are equal partners.
In the event of a Biden–Harris administration, Seoul could conceivably expect more cordial diplomatic treatment from its US ally, particularly in terms of the combined South Korea–US deterrence posture. Still, the outcome of the US election will likely have little real impact on South Korea’s tenuous position between China and the United States.
In South Korea, former US vice president Joe Biden’s stature as a member of the Washington establishment has brought hope of a return to predictability and consistency in US policy toward the Korean Peninsula. Seoul would welcome the placement of seasoned professionals on a Biden national security team, given the dearth of experienced practitioners in the Trump administration.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s desire to maintain his administration’s engagement-based approach to North Korea may clash with the return of a more mainstream US policy toward the North, given US President Donald Trump’s comparative willingness to connect with Pyongyang. Yet, prospective members of a Biden national security corps, some with reputations as defence hawks, may have shifted their views away from the old limited-engagement policy. A South Korean policy oriented toward rapprochement with Pyongyang and a return to a more traditional policy in Washington need not necessarily be entirely incompatible, hopes Seoul.
But while South Korea might find stability and consistency in relations with Washington on North Korea policy, China–US rivalry will likely have negative implications for South Korea’s ability to coordinate with Washington over threats to security, irrespective of the US election outcome.
South Korea finds itself facing a seemingly inevitable need to choose sides between China and the United States, even as China’s Ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming declared that China hopes the South Koreans can operate diplomatically. The onus is on South Korea to find a way to cooperate over Korean Peninsula security between Beijing and Washington, even as South Korea faces a serious risk of having its security shaped disproportionately by China–US enmity with little regard for its own interests.
Despite Biden’s opponents accusing him of being ‘soft on China’, one crucial aspect of Biden’s foreign policy would be rallying US allies in efforts to continue containing China. In the context of China–US relations, South Korean security is just one cog in Washington’s China policy. But for South Korea, acrimony between China and the United States casts a long shadow over its security.
South Korean National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug lamented that North Korea–US tensions cast a shadow over peace on the Korean Peninsula. According to Park, North Korea continues to depend a great deal on China for support.
Although North Korea maintains a nuclear arsenal precisely to mitigate security dependence on China, continued enmity between North Korea and the United States could reinforce the China–North Korea partnership against the common US foe, which in no way serves the cause of inter-Korean reconciliation.
China could also potentially leverage South Korea’s vulnerability to push for Seoul to take an approach more in line with Beijing’s position of sanctions relief. The Blue House has hinted it could seek exemptions to sanctions insofar as they would make inter-Korean cooperation more feasible, to which the United States responded that nothing of the sort should go ahead without its approval.
Seoul’s most pressing task is to avoid a Chinese economic approach to South Korea reminiscent of Beijing’s ‘anti-THAAD’ actions in 2017. Yet China could, in its continuing diplomatic outreach to South Korea, place more emphasis on the ‘carrot’ to push for economic cooperation with Pyongyang, with China providing guarantees against anticipated US criticism of inter-Korean coaction.
A Biden–Harris victory might offer an opening for Seoul and Washington to recover some of the inter-administration trust and goodwill lost over the past four years. But Seoul will continue to find itself conducting its policies toward North Korea from a tenuous position between Beijing and Washington either way.
This reality should be a reminder to US policymakers of the vulnerable position of one if its allies in the Indo-Pacific. For South Korea, a Biden–Harris administration may be a warmer partner, but there will be serious limits to the extent South Korea’s policymakers will have cause to celebrate if Washington continues to view the Korean Peninsula as a theatre of China–US strategic rivalry.
Anthony V Rinna is a senior editor for the Sino-NK research group.
This article first appeared on the East Asia Forum.