Following months of nervous anticipation in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential elections, South Koreans can finally breathe a sigh of relief that the United States will return to a more conventional, predictable, and institution-based leadership style and policy toward the Korean Peninsula under President-elect Joe Biden. But Biden’s return to a conventional alliance management approach may also shed light on existing cracks in the alliance previously obfuscated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s unconventional and personalized approach to Korean affairs. As a result, the onus will shift to South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration to meet the expectations for elevated alliance cooperation that a Biden administration will bring.
Once the votes have been counted and recounted, the legal challenges thwarted, and the transition begins in earnest, the Moon administration will have to deal with three major gaps between its own policies and the outlines of Biden’s policies: deterrence vs. peace as the foundation for policy toward North Korea, the Biden administration’s emphasis on an alliance-based approach to China, and a return to a focus on alliance-based trilateral coordination among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. On each of these issues, the United States will bring higher expectations for South Korea’s cooperation and contributions rooted in a deep appreciation of South Korea’s capabilities as an alliance partner.
Biden’s advisors are keen to reinforce deterrence in the Asia-Pacific and restore the credibility of U.S. pledges to defend against North Korea’s ongoing nuclear development. But President Moon’s policy centers on peace rather than deterrence. Some progressive Moon supporters argue that the focus on deterrence rather than peace is not an essential condition for preserving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, but instead has obstructed peaceful development of inter-Korean relations. The Biden and Moon administrations may find it difficult to harmonize Moon’s emphasis on an end-of-war declaration with the Biden administration’s desire to shore up the credibility of extended deterrence.
In the waning days of the Trump administration, senior Moon administration officials have been wringing their hands over how to deal with challenging issues such as the Economic Partnership Network and the Quad Plus that appear to have thrust the U.S.-China competition into hyperdrive. While a Biden administration will seek to cooperate with China where it can, it will compete with China where it must and will prefer to approach the rivalry with China by building coalitions with like-minded partners rather than pursuing unilateral strategies. But a coalition-based strategy that raises expectations for alliance partners to move in tandem with the United States on policy toward China, even if it preserves space for cooperation with China on universal issues such as climate change or nonproliferation, will increase pressure on the Moon administration to align itself with the Biden administration based on common values as a fellow democracy.
A third area of potential difference between Biden and Moon involves the restoration of trilateral coordination among the United States, South Korea and Japan as a foundation for dealing with North Korea and other threats to the liberal international order. But South Korean domestic politics, emotionalism, and long-standing differences over history have strained relations with Japan under the Moon administration, limiting space for future-oriented cooperation based on common democratic values. The Biden administration will seek to work productively with Japan and South Korea while also curtailing the downturn in the Japan-South Korea relationship. Senior Biden Policy Advisor Anthony Blinken played a major role in establishing a regular trilateral coordination dialogue during the Obama administration and will undoubtedly seek to restore these meetings.
During the Trump era, the most consequential personal relationship on the Korean Peninsula was the “bromance” that developed between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But moving forward, the Biden-Moon relationship will hold the key to both effective coordination of policy toward North Korea and to renewing opportunities to widen the aperture of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
It will take time for the Biden administration to incorporate nonproliferation and China-related issues into a coherent policy toward the Korean Peninsula, but the Biden administration will find itself under pressure to move quickly, especially if North Korea reverts to its standard playbook of using provocations to tame new American leaders. To harness the potential of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the two leaders will need to close existing gaps while leveraging new opportunities for technology-driven cooperation in areas such as pandemic cooperation, vaccine development, and IT infrastructure-building.
Heightened expectations for expanded cooperation with South Korea will accompany the U.S. return to a conventional foreign policy. But the Moon administration will have to decide how and whether support Biden’s return to a normal U.S. foreign policy in areas where the two sides disagree, while taking advantage of the opportunity to unlock new and promising frontiers for the relationship.