Asia Insight

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  2. Anticipating the Biden Administration’s Policy for the Korean Peninsula

Anticipating the Biden Administration’s Policy for the Korean Peninsula

Hong Seok Hoon (Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification)

1. Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy

 = America First and Isolationism

- Since the inauguration of the Trump Administration, the US have been accused of abandoning its global leadership. From the US actions such as criticizing NATO allies, withdrawing from Paris Climate Accord, and pulling out of TPP and JCPOA, there have been rising concerns of the US's return to isolationism.

- At the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum on August 31, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that “the US, India, Australia, and Japan should become a wall against China” and that other countries in the region should be able to join. This was along the lines of the concept of ‘Networked Security Architecture’ laid out in the Indo-Pacific Strategic Report released by the US Department of Defense in 2019. It also has to do with the measures to prepare for the coming post-COVID era geopolitical contest with China, by providing leadership in bi-, mini-, or multilateral organizations rather than forming an Asian version of NATO.

- US Deputy Secretary of State Steven Biegun is taking the lead in the US, Japan, India and Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as well as Quad plus including South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand.

 = US’s Asia Policy Centered around the Indo-Pacific

- Contrary to the decoupling from China, the US is more engaged with the countries in the Indo-Pacific region. COVID-19 is giving the US new opportunities to engage with the ASEAN and other countries.

- USAID is providing 2.9 million dollars to India, 1.3 million dollars to Sri Lanka, 3.4 million dollars to Bangladesh, 18 million dollars to the ASEAN, contributing to their health security capacity building.

- US support for small countries in South Asia is channeled through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and is leading to regional cooperation and consolidation of democratic governance, which reflects the reach of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

 = Maintaining the Status Quo in the Korean Peninsula

- Given the 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 situation in the US, President Trump did not seem particularly interested in breaking the impasse in US-DPRK relations. Waiting for the transition of power in Washington, Pyongyang will also refrain from provoking the US and manage the current situation with a wait-and-see approach.

- Regarding the transfer of Wartime Operational Control, which is a major issue in ROK-US alliance, Moon Jae In administration had set the deadline for the completion of the transfer within his term of office, by May 2022. Due to COVID-19 outbreak, however, the verification of Full Operational Capability, which is the second phase of the transition, has not been conducted. The two sides conducted only preliminary exercises of the Full Operational Capability. As the second phase has not been carried out, the third phase, verifying Full Mission Capability, scheduled to happen in 2021 will also face a setback.


2. The Outcome of the US Presidential Election and the US Policy Direction

 = Voter Polarization and Record Turnout

- Partisan politics and voter polarization became conspicuous.

- Out of 240 million total eligible voters, 158 million actually voted with a turnout rate of 66.4%. This was the highest turnout since the last record of 73.7% in 1990.

 = The president elect Joe Biden put forward four major tasks, overcoming COVID-19, economic recovery, solving racial problems and dealing with climate change,

- Biden had criticized that Trump’s America First policy resulted in ‘American Alone,’ and suggested that his foreign and security policy would be more internationalist (October 15, ABC broadcast).

- In his victory speech on November 8, Biden emphasized America’s international leadership, restoring traditionally cooperative relationships with NATO and strengthening alliance with Korea and Japan.

- Biden camp’s foreign policy advisor and former DOD Deputy Undersecretary Brian McKeon commented that Biden’s Korea policy will be very different from that of Trump but will not follow Obama’s, either.

- McKeon hinted that the Biden administration will thoroughly revise Trump’s approach to foreign-security issues concerning US-ROK relations and North Korean nuclear weapons. The keywords for Biden’s foreign policy could be surmised as expansion of democracy, strengthening alliances, economic diplomacy and restoring global leadership.

- Biden is expected to appoint Tony Blinken as the secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser. They will be more inclined to strengthening alliances and multilateralism.


3. Major Issues in the Biden Administration’s Korea Policy

 (1) ROK-US Relations

 = Recreating the Alliance

- Biden is putting emphasis on mending relations with Asian allies including Korea and traditional European allies, and on enhancing American influence through multilateralism. Thus, the new US administration is likely to implement Korea policy on the foundation of the US-ROK-Japan alliance and along the lines of the Indo-Pacific centered Asia policy under Trump.

- Biden’s election platform stated that the first task after taking office would be to scrap ‘the America First’ policy that Trump advocated.

- In October 29, 2020 Yonhap New Agency contribution titled ‘Hope for Our Better Future,’ the presidential candidate Biden called Korea ‘a strong ally’ and stated that he would strengthen the alliance rather than resort to blackmail Seoul with US troop withdrawal and extortion.

- Biden also stated that the US would return to international organizations such as WHO, Paris Climate Accord or UN Commission on Human Rights, from which it withdrew under Trump. On November 4th he announced that the US will rejoin the Paris Accord before his inauguration. 

- The above mentioned factors suggest a more amicable and flexible American attitude in dealing with foreign and security policy agenda between the US and the ROK.

 = ROK-US Defense Cost Share Negotiations and US Forces in Korea

- Biden had criticized Trump’s excessive demand for Seoul’s share of the cost for the US troops in Korea and mentioned that he would settle for a more reasonable amount.

- Biden had responded in the negative when the New York Times survey asked whether he agreed to the withdrawal of US forces from Korea. He also suggested his intention to stabilize the status of the US forces stationed in Korea and to resume joint ROK-US military exercises.

- In accordance with ‘the strategic flexibility principle’ of the US defense strategy, the Biden administration’s policy review would include agendas such as restructuring and redeploying troops overseas, and US forces in Korea would be part of the review.

- In this context, one can see the reason why the phrase ‘maintaining the size of the US forces in Korea at the current level’ is missing in the recently released 2020 ‘ROK-US Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) Joint Communique.’ The Ministry of Defense sees that Washington “is pursuing measures to adjust troops depending on the security situation rather than maintaining a constant size of troops in a specific country.” 

 = The Issue of Transfer of Wartime Operational Control

- Concerning the transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON), Trump and Biden administrations do not seem to differ much. Since the transfer had been conditionally agreed upon by the two sides, Biden is also likely to follow through as agreed.

- It is clearly noted in the Article 11 of the 2020 SCM joint communique that “the two ministers confirmed that the wartime OPCON will be transferred to the future combined forces command only after the mutually agreed upon and specified conditions should be sufficiently satisfied. This reflects Washington’s intention to thoroughly follow through the said conditions.


(2) Denuclearization of North Korea

 = Continuing US Sanctions against DPRK

- Responding to the New York Times survey, Biden answered in the affirmative to the question ‘Will you continue to step up the sanctions against DPRK until it abandons the nuclear program?’ 

- In the second television debate during the election, Biden declared his goal of making ‘the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,’ called Kim Jong Un ‘a thug’ and stated that he will continue to put pressure on Pyongyang with sanctions.

 = Change in Washington’s Approach to US-DPRK Denuclearization Talks

- Biden’s approach to North Korean denuclearization is likely to be ‘a bottom-up style,’ giving the negotiators more authority.

- Biden’s policy advisor Brian McKeon had clearly stated that, if Biden won the election, he would not continue with Trump’s approach.

He said that “a few summit meetings would not solve (the denuclearization issue)” and that the negotiation should proceed at the working level with sincere ‘bottom-up’ style diplomatic efforts instead of ‘‘top-down’ method as seen in Trump-Kim summit meeting.

 = Prospects for US-DPRK Dialogue and Possibility of North Korea’s Military Provocation

- Biden said ‘No’ to the New York Times survey question, ‘Will you continue personal diplomacy carried out by Trump with Kim Jong Un?

- Responding to September 2019 Washington Post survey question--‘Will you succeed Trump’s approach of meeting with Kim Jong Un even though Pyongyang is not making any concession regarding denuclearization’--Biden responded, ‘if certain conditions are met.’ This left open the possibility of US-DPRK dialogue assuming Pyongyang will agree to reduce its nuclear capability.

- During the January 2020 television debate Biden said, “President Trump met with Kim Jong Un as Pyongyang wanted, giving him legitimacy and loosening sanctions.” Biden subsequently stated, “I will strengthen alliance with Korea and Japan, and make Beijing put strong pressure on Pyongyang.”

- Biden also responded in the affirmative to the New York Times survey question, ‘Will you consider using military force to deter Iran and North Korea from conducting nuclear weapons or missile tests?’

- Since the Biden administration will have many figures who had participated in negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran during the Obama administration, there is a possibility that a similar denuclearization process that could guarantee the irreversibility of the North Korea nuclear deal could be pursued by the UN Security Council members such as the US and China.

- Observers speculated that North Korea might carry out some high intensity military provocation in the first half of 2021, and Biden camp reportedly sent a message to Seoul, requesting to prevent such a situation.


(3) Human Rights in North Korea and the Issue of Separated Families

 = Human Rights Issue

- Democratization and human rights in North Korea are another issue that will draw Biden’s attention, considering that he took leadership in passing the North Korean Human Rights Act in the Congress in 2005.

 = Reunion of Separated Families

- In the contribution to Yonhap News on October 29th, Biden stated his intention to solve the issue of the reunion of separated families.


4. Policy Responses Required for Seoul

 = Diplomatic Initiatives to Deal with the Biden Administration (Inauguration scheduled on January 20, 2021)

- It will take time for Washington to organize a Korea policy team or North Korean nuclear negotiation team and to establish channels with Pyongyang. Therefore, Seoul needs to build networks with Biden’s close confidants and advisors, and engage in strategic dialogues (1.5 track).

- Managing North Korea is important to deter military provocation and other misjudgment by Pyongyang.

- Need to keep in mind Obama’s policy, “conduct dialogues but no negotiation.”

 = Prepare to Deal with the New US Administration’s North Korea Policy

- Washington considers denuclearization as most important among North Korea related issues. It will attempt to deal with North Korea within the context of its Asia policy centered on China.

- Seoul should expect the US to put forward human rights issues and sanctions as its main agenda.

- It is likely that the US will continue to pressure China and that it will strengthen the ROK-US-Japan alliance or try to include ROK in the Quad. Seoul needs strategically appropriate policy towards Beijing and Pyongyang.

 = Maintain ROK-US Alliance

- Through consultation and communication at the working level, Seoul and Washington should coordinate policies for inter-Korean relations. It is important to establish principles in North Korea policy.

- As the new US government is designing its foreign policy, it is appropriate timing to develop a future oriented ROK-US alliance. Biden is emphasizing multilateralism to restore alliance relations with traditional allies in Asia and Europe and to enhance US influence.

- Clear principles are necessary regarding sanctions against North Korea. UN sanctions are posing a dilemma for the current Seoul government which is trying to promote inter-Korean economic exchange and cooperation. International community’s opinions regarding North Korea are negative. Seoul’s attempt to persuade the international community to loosen the sanctions could backfire. The sanctions are holding firm and Seoul should make consistent efforts to see Pyongyang carry out denuclearization.

Robert Delaney, “US seeks formal allies to NATO with India, Japan and Australia, State Department Official says,” South China Morning Post, 1 September 2020.

Jeffrey Becker, “COVID-19 Offers a Golden Opportunity to Reengage with the Indo-Pacific” Defense One (2020. 4).

Nilanthi Samaranayake. “COVID-19 and Competition for Influence in South Asia” National Bureau for Asian Research Commentary (April 15, 2020).

“The President Elect Biden’s Policy for Korean Peninsula,” Maeil ShinmunI. November 9, 2020.

“‘Korea is a Strong Ally’… Presidential Candidate Biden’s Contribution to Yonhap News,” Yonhap News. October 30, 2020.

“Biden’s Tasks and His Policy for the Korean Peninsula,” Kyunghyang Shinmun. November 6, 2020.

”Biden Victory: Change in the US Forces in Korea Unlikely… Conditions for Transfer of Wartime Operational Control Considered,” Yonhap News. November 8, 2020.

New York Times,

Washington Post,

”Democratic Candidate Biden’s Korea Policy… Differentiating from Trump,” Yonhap News. April 10, 2020.

”Democratic Candidate Biden’s Korea Policy… Differentiating from Trump,” Yonhap News. April 10, 2020.

New York Times,

”To Biden, ’Intention to be the Driver in the Korean Peninsula‘; Message to Pyongyang, ‘Refrain from Military Action,’ Kyunghyang Shinmun. November 9, 2020.

”President Elect Biden’s Policy for the Korean Peninsula,” Maeil Shinmun. November 9, 2020.