Korea : Biden a mixed blessing?

Seoul and Pyongyang are trying to fathom the implications of the Biden presidency for the Korean peninsula, while concerns remain about the damage Trump may yet do during his remaining time in office.

So far Kim Jong-un has refrained from any comment on the election outcome – in step with Xi and Putin. President Moon has welcomed Biden as President-elect in carefully worded terms amid Korean media speculation about a range of possible challenges he could have with the new US administration. Biden’s long first hand experience in Korea and North Asia has been recognised but some concern lingers about the damage a raging Trump might wreak on the bilateral relationship in his remaining months in office.

As reported in earlier P&I, it has been clear that Kim Jong-un has been pondering for some time the pro’s and con’s for the DPRK of the US election outcome. Just how much did he value his personal relationship with Trump and their lengthy chain of “love letters”? What would Biden bring to the table – more of the same from Obama? Biden’s labelling of Kim as a “thug” could have added to the mix! Added to which is recent media speculation that Kim might choose this chaotic transition time to test another ICBM or the like just to complicate the policy choices for Biden.

For his part, Moon must be relieved at the prospect of Biden’s commitment to strengthen US alliances which could ease back on Trump’s unrelenting demand for a massive increase in ROK funding of US forces stationed in Korea and facilitate bilateral agreement on the very sensitive change to ROK operational control of joint US/ROK forces in the event of war. He would also be hoping that Biden will reintroduce some crucial predictability into the bilateral relationship – particularly on US force levels in Korea which Trump has been threatening to run down soon. Where bilateral strains on the economic front – especially on supply chains, 5G and Huawei – remain to be seen.

Moon has been quick to seize the initiative to inject ROK views into the Biden team’s policy formulation on Korea. Biden knows the Korean scene well from his various experiences as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then Vice President. The Korean media lost no time in recalling the active role Biden played as an intermediary in the long running dispute between Japan and the ROK over the vexed issue of compensation payments to Korean comfort women in WW11. This had involved him dealing directly with Prime Minister Abe and then President Park Geun-hye. Biden had also been widely reported as having commented to Park about an important agreement she had signed with China that “It’s never been a good bet to bet against America”.

The large coterie of Biden foreign policy advisers also contains many familiar to the ROK policy establishment. Ironically therein lies a major problem for Moon and the ROK. As much as he may often have felt discomfited by the rocky road with Trump, Moon welcomed Trump’s efforts to open dialogue with Kim and the DPRK leadership – as he also had done . Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” had achieved nothing of real significance towards the denuclearisation of the DPRK and had derided the Sunshine policy initiated by Kim Dae-jung . Moon’s concern was heightened by reports out of Washington that Biden preferred to avoid summits with Kim Jong-un – preferring a “bottom up” working level approach to dealings with Pyongyang. Moon continues to see merit in trying to maintain personal contact with Kim and the leadership level in the DPRK – but without the “Showbiz” Trump surrounded himself in – while adopting stage by stage negotiations at working levels. To increase leverage on the DPRK, Moon is also keen to reinstate some of the major joint US/ROK military exercises which Trump summarily cancelled as a sweetener for his discussions with Kim. Moon has also proposed that the new Japanese Prime Minister Suga organise a 4 way summit between Japan, the US and the two Koreas in Tokyo at the time of the 2021 Olympics.

In a bizarre twist, in the midst of the chaos caused by Trump’s refusal to concede the election results, Secretary of State Pompeo invited ROK Foreign Minister (Kang Kyung-wha) for talks in Washington to make up for him having to miss Seoul during his frenetic China-bashing trip around Asia just days before the elections. Kang accepted the invitation and visited last week when she met with Pompeo and National Security Adviser O’Brien in what unsurprisingly seemed a pretty pointless exercise given Moon’s acceptance of Biden as President-elect! Though the Washington visit allowed Kang to take the opportunity for a range of meetings with key members of the Biden foreign policy team with whom she passed on Moon’s views.

Media briefings of the discussions Kang had in Washington were suitably bland but it can be assumed that the Quad was on the agenda with both groups. Despite their alliance with the US, the ROK has displayed little appetite for joining the Quad – especially in the strident terms Pompeo had been broadcasting – as their relationship with China remains such a sensitive issue and there are some strains in the Seoul:Tokyo connection. The latter has been fuelled recently by what some Koreans have seen as a snub from Prime Minister Suga. In the speculation about Biden’s policy towards China there have been some suggestions that, as an integral part of his commitment to strengthening alliances, he might be contemplating toning down the Pompeo rhetoric and looking to extend membership to ROK and New Zealand.

Coincidentally, the US Congressional Research Service published a very balanced review of the Quad’s history and current situation just the day before the elections. It posits that despite the growing tensions its four members have with China “ the Quad faces major challenges in defining itself and its goals”. The report acknowledges the exclusion of the ROK from the Quad raises some questions given its Alliance with the US and it “fitting the description of being a democracy with maritime interests and growing naval capabilities”. The report also flags that “there remains considerable confusion (in India)… about what the Quad is and how it will fit into India’s regional strategy”. From a different angle there is also some concern in India and in sections of the US Indian community about the influence Vice President elect Harris might have on Biden’s attitude towards India given her criticisms in the past about Prime Minister Modi’s policies in Kashmir. Some Indian media commentary has wondered whether that could temper US support for India in the event of military confrontation with China. All of which presents some important issues for the Australian Government to consider in its own policy towards the Quad.

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Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

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