[Column] Biden’s election could user in a new opportunity for inter-Korean relations

Posted on : 2020-10-15 16:04 KST Modified on : 2020-10-15 16:04 KST
Democratic candidate has indicated he’d accept a more gradual approach to denuclearization
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. (Yonhap News)
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. (Yonhap News)

With all polls pointing to Joe Biden winning the US presidential election on Nov. 3, we may be about to see yet another iteration of the cycle that the Korean Peninsula has been running through for the past 30 years. This cycle goes something like this: an outgoing American president comes very close to resolving the Korean Peninsula issue, only for his successor to erase all that progress and go back to square one.

Since the late 1980s, American presidents have pressured North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons early in their time in office, but have eventually pivoted to negotiations and compromise. Whenever the two sides have come close to reaching a deal on the North surrendering its nukes in exchange for the US normalizing diplomatic relations, the current president has left office. Then the following president has reset the North Korean nuclear issue, promising not to repeat the failures of his predecessors, causing the cycle to repeat once again.

US President Donald Trump menacingly raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons against North Korea with the expression “fire and fury,” and North Korea countered by test launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). That crisis led to two historic summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, first in Singapore and then in Hanoi.

The trio of Trump, Kim, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in raised high hopes about a solution to the Korean Peninsula issue, since both Trump and Moon were at the beginning of their presidencies. But ultimately, they were unable to surmount a long-standing dispute over how to resolve the nuclear issue. North Korea advocates gradual denuclearization based on the principle of “action for action,” while the US is only willing to ease sanctions after the North hands over its nukes.

Two years later, the prospect of Biden’s election looms before us. Moon, who has served as a mediator between Kim and Trump, will soon move into the final stage of his own presidency. Biden derided Trump’s summit with Kim as a political performance and said he wouldn’t take that kind of approach with the North.

Biden would most likely focus less on N. Korea and more on domestic front

More importantly, Biden, if he becomes president, would be hard-pressed to pay much attention to the North Korean nuclear issue, at least for the time being. His first priority will be addressing issues at home, including the aftermath of what’s likely to be a chaotic election and the national divisions left by Trump. Among the 48 policy initiatives on Biden’s campaign website, only one pertains to foreign policy (“The Biden Plan for Restoring American Leadership”). Biden’s priorities in foreign policy are repairing US alliances in the Atlantic and stabilizing relations with China.

For South Korea and Moon, this presents both a crisis and an opportunity. Facing a raft of urgent challenges both at home and abroad, a Biden administration wouldn’t want the North Korean nuclear issue to deteriorate. Nor can Biden deny the summits that Trump and Kim have already held. For its part, North Korea isn’t likely to carry out provocations that could put Biden in hot water.

When the New York Times asked Biden about his North Korea policy while he was still in the Democratic Party primaries, Biden said, “I would be willing to meet with Kim — not to pursue a vanity project like Trump, but as part of an actual strategy that moves the ball forward on denuclearization.”

Biden also told Foreign Affairs and the Washington Post that, as president, he would seek to develop a disarmament pact for a new era that would include North Korea. As a blueprint for effective negotiations, Biden pointed to the historic Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama presidency, which he said had prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. These remarks indicate that Biden could reinstate the Iran nuclear deal scrapped by Trump and use that as a benchmark for a similar agreement with North Korea. The implication is that Biden might tolerate an agreement with North Korea that moves gradually toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization — in short, North Korea’s preferred principle of “action for action.”

During Trump’s presidency, the Moon administration concentrated on matters outside of its own domain while ignoring what was within its power on the Korean Peninsula issue. More specifically, Moon spent more time on the grand narrative of reaching a breakthrough in North Korea-US relations than on inter-Korean exchange and cooperation. But the time has come to forge real exchange and cooperation that can advance inter-Korean relations.

While North Korea has savagely criticized South Korea since the breakdown of negotiations with the US at the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un has recently made a series of public comments about inter-Korean cooperation. Even North Korea thinks that making progress on inter-Korean relations would not only have practical advantages but also help the North improve its relations with the US after Biden’s election. A Biden administration would have no reason to oppose using inter-Korean exchange and cooperation to keep the North Korean nuclear issue from getting any worse.

Improving inter-Korean relations would boost the value of South Korea for a Democratic administration under Biden, who seeks to both check the rise of China while also making US-China relations more stable and predictable. Neither the US nor China are likely to object to better inter-Korean relations, since that could stabilize the variable of North Korea, one of the potential flashpoints in US-China relations.

Jung E-gil
Jung E-gil

The Moon administration needs to move forward with confidence, and without hesitation, on inter-Korean exchange and cooperation. Biden’s election would usher in a time of action for South and North Korea, and for Moon and Kim.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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