The friendly interplay last week between Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, and Joe Biden, the incoming president of the United States, signaled subtle but important differences about how to make peace with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
On Thursday, Moon, who has made engagement with the North the hallmark of his presidency, followed other world leaders in congratulating Biden for his election victory. In a 14-minute telephone call, he pledged to “communicate closely” with Biden’s incoming administration “for a forward-looking development of the alliance, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of lasting peace.”
The president-elect responded in kind, reaffirming the US security commitment to South Korea and expressing his desire “to strengthen the US-ROK alliance as the linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” Both statements were designed to show that their alliance, formalized in 1954 just after the Korean War, is still alive and kicking.
Biden’s use of the term “Indo-Pacific” with Moon, however, was surprising. It was coined by the Pentagon during the Trump administration to describe America’s expanded regional alliance system in Asia. Known within national security circles as “The Quad,” the NATO-like grouping now includes the United States as well as the pro-American governments of India, Japan, and Australia. The now-renamed US Indo-Pacific Command, the foundation of the new four-way alliance, is widely understood to be aimed at containing China.
South Korea—despite its own bilateral alliance with the Pentagon—has not formally joined the Quad but instead has been seeking a middle ground between the United States and China. By suggesting that South Korea be part of it, therefore, Biden was indicating in a subtle way his tilt toward multilateralism, Trump’s bête noire. But Biden’s gesture could also indicate a harder line toward both China and North Korea that the South doesn’t support and could further complicate the US-ROK alliance, said Henri Feron, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a fierce critic of US policy.
“Biden could clash with Moon Jae-in’s engagement strategy, in much the same way as George W. Bush clashed with [former President] Kim Dae-jung 20 years ago,” he told The Nation in an interview. Kim, who led the democratic opposition during South Korea’s period of authoritarian rule, was the architect of Seoul’s “Sunshine Policy,” which led to the first-ever summit between North and South in 2000. But he saw his policies crumble when Bush rejected diplomacy and placed the North on his “axis of evil” list, along with Iran and Iraq.
In that context, Biden’s comments Thursday may explain his unusual preelection overture to South Korea. On October 29, just five days before the election, he published a “special contribution” in Yonhap, the Korean government-owned news service, to differentiate himself from Trump. The outgoing US president won grudging respect in South Korea by negotiating with Kim in 2018, but he also alienated many by demanding that South Korea quintuple its sizable financial contribution to the 28,500 US troops on its soil.
Biden sought to distance himself from that policy and impress South Korea with his interest in a negotiated resolution with the North. “As President, I’ll stand with South Korea” by strengthening the alliance “rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops,” he promised. He also acknowledged “the pain of division” in Korea and promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” toward the goal of “a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula.”
That contrasted sharply with Biden’s condemnation during the campaign of Trump’s one-on-one talks with Kim, whom he called a “thug” and even compared to Adolf Hitler. Moreover, Biden’s endorsement of “principled diplomacy” would mark a break from the policies of the Obama administration, which refused for eight years to seriously engage with North Korea as part of its “strategic patience” approach, which viewed the North as an illegitimate, “rogue” state ready to collapse at any moment.
Biden’s message in Yonhap was seen in Korea as “a sort of indirect message to the Moon Jae-in government,” a reliable source in Seoul who is close to the South Korean president told The Nation. “I believe Biden is far better than Trump in dealing with the alliance,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The Moon government will accommodate when and if US demands are reasonable. As to the ROK-US alliance, I do not see any major problems.”
On the other hand, this source acknowledged, most of Biden’s team, including his top adviser Antony Blinken, played central roles in Obama’s failed policies, which relied heavily on sanctions and military pressure to force North Korea’s hand. “There seems to be a danger of the return of old ‘strategic patience,’” he told me. “Too many hard-liners who do not have a proper and updated understanding of North Korea seem to be surrounding Biden.”
“I hope the administration stays in touch with the Moon government closely and allows Seoul to interact with Pyongyang before Biden’s inauguration,” he wrote. “The North will be happy to talk to Biden’s USA if the latter abandons a unilateral maximum-pressure approach.” He added, “Of course, the North should abstain from undertaking missile and nuclear testing.” Some US experts fear those tests could start up again anytime.
On November 9, the progressive Hankyoreh urged the incoming administration to adopt a new policy and avoid pressuring South Korea to join its anti-China coalition. “We must persuade Biden not to return to strategic patience,” the newspaper said in an editorial. While Biden offers “an alliance-focused foreign policy that’s more predictable than Trump’s maverick behavior,” his administration “is also likely to push harder for South Korea to join its campaign to contain China through trilateral military cooperation with the US and Japan,” it argued—presciently, it turned out.
Besides Blinken, who was Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Biden’s top picks for national security posts reportedly include Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon official and current defense consultant and investor, and Avril Haines, who was deputy director of the CIA during the Obama administration and one of Obama’s key advisers on Korea. All were well-known hawks on North Korea, but also played critical roles in expanding the US regional military alliance in Asia.
Their attitude toward the North was summarized a few years ago by Jeffrey Bader, a Brookings Institution scholar once known as the “architect” of the Obama-Biden policy toward North Korea. “Many of us believed that the most likely long-term solution to the North’s nuclear pursuits lay in the North’s collapse and absorption into a South-led reunified Korea,” Bader wrote in his 2012 memoir about the Obama administration.
President Moon, who was the chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun during an earlier period of engagement with the North, is well aware of Obama’s record on North Korea (he made that clear when I interviewed him in 2017). On Monday, he told Korea reporters that he will soon open “multi-sided” communications with Biden’s team to ensure there is no “vacuum” in the alliance.
Moon also expressed hope that “the two Koreas, as parties (directly) concerned regarding the Korean Peninsula issue, will be able to play a more important role” in the peace process. That seemed to underscore his wish, stymied by Trump, to expand economic and cultural ties with North Korea as a way to build the atmosphere for a peace settlement on the peninsula.
Many in South Korea believe that Biden’s long history with Korea, including his friendship with Kim Dae-jung and support for Korean Americans seeking to unite with their families in North Korea, bodes well for the future. Through his surrogates, Biden has signaled that he would talk to Kim, but only after his government and foreign policy team had completed the necessary groundwork for a serious negotiation. Biden has also pledged to expand humanitarian assistance to the North and make it easier for international organizations to provide that help.
“Joe Biden understands that the North Korea issue is pretty complicated and you can’t just solve it with a couple of leader-to-leader summits,” Brian McKeon, a close Biden aide and former Pentagon official, told Yonhap News in October. “I think he would be willing to meet with (Kim) if it was part of an actual strategy that moves us forward on the denuclearization objective.”
The first test of Biden’s pledge to work with Seoul to create a “lasting peace” in Korea will come when he meets soon with President Moon, as they pledged to do in their call last week. The Korean leader badly wants the United States to resume its talks with Kim Jong-un, and his supporters are urging him to get that process moving.
In a rather audacious move on Friday, Representative Lee Nak-yon, the chairman of Moon’s Democratic Party, said he would urge Biden to reaffirm the joint statement of principles signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim at their 2018 summit in Singapore as the “starting point” for his future negotiations.
The Trump-Kim statement, which is often criticized for lacking specifics, committed the United States and North Korea to build “new relations,” cooperate with the South “to build a lasting and stable peace regime,” and work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“It has legitimacy and authority, and to its content the South and North Koreas and the U.S. have all agreed,” said Lee. How Biden responds to such a proposal will explain a lot about his intentions.
Without a fundamental change in US policy, South Korea could be left on its own. During Trump’s talks with Kim, President Moon failed to impress the US government and the hawkish think tanks that drive American policy with the importance of ending the Korean War through a peace treaty, which North Korea has been seeking for years and US peace groups believe would be an important breakthrough for the Korean Peninsula. The Democratic leadership has not shown any interest, either.
Biden’s people “fail to acknowledge the unresolved state of the Korean War and what role that plays in the continuous standoff” on the peninsula, said Christine Ahn, the founder and executive director of the pro-engagement Women Cross DMZ. “Despite paying lip service to diplomacy, a Biden administration seems ready to continue the failed hawkishness that has driven North Korea policy for decades,” she said in an interview just before Biden’s election. A congressional resolution calling for a peace agreement in Korea now has 52 sponsors, including the first Republican, Ahn said.
Biden’s likely national security adviser Blinken underscored Ahn’s concerns in a detailed interview with CBS News on September. A Biden administration, he said, would “work closely with allies like South Korea and Japan” and encourage China to “build genuine economic pressure to squeeze North Korea to get it to the negotiating table. We need to cut off its various avenues and access to resources—something we were doing very vigorously at the end of the Obama-Biden administration.”
Starting off with that kind of pressure would be a fatal mistake, said Feron of the Center for International Policy. “Unless Moon can convince Biden to send conciliatory signals to Pyongyang, it is likely that we will soon see North Korean long-range missile tests and a renewed escalation in military tensions,” he predicted. Feron also pointed to recent remarks on the alliance from Lee Soo-hyuck, South Korea’s ambassador to Washington, that underscore the tension between Seoul and Washington over these issues.
“Just because Korea chose the U.S. 70 years ago does not mean it has to choose the U.S. for the next 70 years, too,” Lee told a subcommittee of the Korean National Assembly in October. “Korea can choose to keep siding with the U.S. only if it is able to love the country and if it serves the nation’s interests.” That seems to be a good summary of where the two countries stand today, on the brink of a new era in Washington.