Back in October during Biden’s presidential campaign, the incumbent president penned an Op-Ed in South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. In the first letter of its kind, Biden praised the South Korean people for their strength and alliance and recognized Korean Americans’ contributions to American democracy and economy, a far cry from President Trump’s unsavory remarks about the South Korean people. In the op-ed, Biden also promised a push towards North Korean denuclearization and a unified Korean peninsula. Biden’s ability to deliver on this promise will depend on North Korean economic recovery, domestic priorities, and relations with South Korea.
The first likelihood is that Biden’s presidency will stabilize America’s relations with both North and South Korea. Trump tends to be inconsistent and unpredictable in foreign affairs, further shaping the DPRK’s distrust of the West. Biden is much more predictable and tends towards compromise, as his career in public service has often evidenced. Provided that Biden can demonstrate reliability, he is in a better position to secure North Korea’s participation in a bilateral or multilateral agreement. As for South Korea, relations will likely improve. If Biden’s Op-Ed is any indication, he will treat current President Moon Jae-In with more courtesy than Trump, fostering better diplomatic ties between the two countries. Equally promising are Moon Jae-In’s affable remarks and hope for collaboration in a congratulatory statement released after Biden’s election.
Right now the prospect for unification with South Korea relies heavily on North Korea first improving its economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic. Imports and exports from and to China, North Korea’s primary trade partner, have dropped to negligible numbers, and North Korea’s economy is estimated to have shrank by 8.5% in 2020 in the worst blow to its economy in decades. Although North Korea continues to report zero COVID-19 cases within its borders, this is highly unlikely as even if North Korea’s southern border is strictly controlled, the border between North Korea and China is porous and prone to black market smugglers who could bring in COVID-19.
Concurrently, North Korea will attempt a return to brinkmanship with the United States. In a recent military parade showing off a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and various tactical missiles, Kim Jong-Un pledged to further expand his nuclear program. However, the SLBM may be the same missile that was revealed in a parade last October.
With this parade, North Korea intends to both prove to its citizens its continual strength and gain leverage with the United States. North Korea’s goal is to utilize nuclear threat in negotiations with the U.S., with the intention of lifting harmful sanctions on North Korea in return for gradual North Korean denuclearization and allowing nuclear inspections. It would be in Biden’s strategic interest to both lift sanctions on North Korea in the short-term and help facilitate peace negotiations between North and South Korea in the long-term as it would help accomplish what Trump failed to do with his “maximum pressure” approach.
Biden should move quickly to counter the growing security threat that North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal presents. The timeline of Biden’s actions with North and South Korea will also depend on Biden’s domestic priorities and success in accomplishing his 100 first days’ goals. The current intense polarization in the U.S. government could make it difficult to gain bipartisan support for any policies dealing with the DPRK. Additionally, some analysts predict that Sino-American contentions may take precedence over Korean-American foreign policies for the Biden administration.
As Biden embarks on a bid to undo many of Trump’s policies, he will likely aim to reverse Trump’s addition to the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) of export restrictions on steel and other changes which hurt South Korea’s economy, thereby improving trade relations with South Korea. Even more urgent on Biden’s agenda to improve relations with South Korea should be to resolve burden-sharing costs by accepting South Korea’s conditions (something his Op-Ed has indicated he is likely to do).
Additionally, as Biden attempts to repair relations with South Korea, it will be crucial to keep in mind the goals of the recently liberal South Korean government. The United States historically has more experience dealing with a conservative government in South Korea, which tends to rely more on the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance (a continuation of this alliance dating from the Cold War) and harbor a hardline approach towards North Korea. Moon Jae-In’s liberal party, by contrast, favors peace with North Korea and greater autonomy from hegemonic powers, like the U.S. Moon desires inter-Korean engagement as demonstrated by state remarks, a willingness to broadcast Jung-Eun in South Korean media, and a more positive shift in tone concerning his northern neighbor. Moon also plans a joint resort and Olympic bid with North Korea, and has passed legislation aimed towards fostering inter-Korean relations. North Korea shows less enthusiasm towards cooperation with South Korea.
Biden’s challenge will come in navigating ways in which to facilitate unity of the Korean peninsula and reduce security threats from North Korea while making an effort not to overstep on the present South Korean liberal government’s desire for greater autonomy. Biden will need to gain back domestic South Korean support for foreign ties with the U.S., which frayed during Trump’s presidency, as well as smooth out some contentions which predate the Trump administration. Furthermore, Biden should aim to engage in talks with North Korea and not take a more conservative hard-lining approach if he is to gain South Korea’s approval for U.S.-mediated peace interference. It is critical for Biden to balance U.S. security interests with those of South Korea as a joint-approach is favorable for Korean unification.
Just as North Korea is stronger against an eroded U.S–South Korean allyship, the contentious relations between South Korea and Japan allow North Korea to perform missile tests (such as those they performed in Japan’s EEZ zone) with lessened repercussions. Biden can help better relations between ROK and Japan by gauging where to intervene: in bilateral affairs concerning Korean laborers and reparations for comfort women, the U.S. should step back. Biden can directly aid the amelioration of Japan-ROK relations by encouraging talks between the two nations to resolve export control issues. Simultaneously, Biden should lead a U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance focused on North Korean nuclear deterrence. Additionally, it is paramount for the United States to call on NATO nations to open up talks with North Korea in order to reduce nuclear tensions and Kim Jong-Eun’s paranoia. By strengthening ROK-Japan relations and encouraging NATO countries to engage with North Korea, Biden can reduce Kim Jong-Un’s perceived threat of a NATO-led regime change in North Korea while building a stronger front against the DPRK.