[Editorial] S. Korea needs to marshal resources to restart inter-Korean peace process in preparation for Biden era

Posted on : 2020-11-09 15:35 KST Modified on : 2020-11-09 15:35 KST
Democratic candidate Joe Biden gives a victory speech on Nov. 7 in Wilmington, Delaware, after the media call the presidential race for him. (EPA/Yonhap News)
Democratic candidate Joe Biden gives a victory speech on Nov. 7 in Wilmington, Delaware, after the media call the presidential race for him. (EPA/Yonhap News)

The US has entered the Biden era. After a vote tallying process that revealed a crisis for American democracy, media outlets finally called the race for Joe Biden, candidate for the Democratic Party, on Nov. 7.

“I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify,” Biden said in a speech declaring victory in the election. I sought this office [. . .] to make America respected around the world again.”

But with US President Donald Trump disputing the election results and promising to take his case to the Supreme Court, sharp conflict and division are expected to continue for the time being.

Biden’s foreign policy objective is restoring American international leadership based on liberal internationalism. He’s likely to shore up the American role in the international community that was eroded by Trump’s “America first” approach while focusing his diplomatic assets on checking the rise of China.

While Biden offers an alliance-focused foreign policy that’s more predictable than Trump’s maverick behavior, it could prove to be a double-edged sword for South Korea. We’re likely to see less reckless behavior such as Trump’s demand for an absurd hike in South Korea’s financial contribution to the cost of stationing American troops in the country. But the US 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.

The South Korean government needs to quickly meet Biden’s foreign policy and national security team to coordinate foreign policy. When South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha visits the US on Nov. 8 to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, she should also sit down with a range of people from Biden’s camp and with members of Congress. Seoul needs to bring firm principles and a clear blueprint to its deliberations with the US.

South Korea should also accelerate the groundwork for re-launching the Korean Peninsula peace process, which has been stalled since the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019. Biden’s policy toward North Korea involves keeping up pressure while simultaneously pushing for dialogue. Biden prefers foreign policy to advance at the working level, as opposed to Trump’s “top-down” approach to diplomacy, which depended upon summits with the North Korean leader.

If the Biden administration focuses on domestic issues including restoring unity to American society, dealing with COVID-19, and promoting an economic recovery, many expect the Korean Peninsula issue to tumble further down the list of priorities. This is a crucial time for the South Korean government to draft a roadmap that is simultaneously future-focused and realistic.

We must persuade Biden not to return to “strategic patience,” the failed North Korean policy of the Obama administration. If South Korea and the US work together closely, the Tokyo Olympics next year could provide an opportunity to break through the logjam in inter-Korean relations and in North Korea-US relations.

North Korea needs to refrain from behavior that would raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula before Biden takes office. The North has often sought to draw attention and bolster its bargaining power by testing nuclear weapons or shooting missiles at the advent of a new US administration. Right now, it’s critical for South and North Korea to quickly resume suspended dialogue and work on resolving uncertainty in Korean Peninsula affairs.

Preparing for potential economic changes under Biden

With considerable change expected in the international trade order, elaborate action is needed by the South Korean government and business community. Biden has promised to restore the multilateral system oriented on the World Trade Organization, which the Trump administration had been planning to leave.

The reversal of Trump’s extreme protectionism could bring about improvements in Korea’s export environment. But since Biden has also promised to prioritize US-made products, the policy of decoupling from China and the protectionist strategy of building an American-centered supply network are likely to continue under the Biden administration.

There are fears that, if South Korea’s major export-oriented conglomerates choose to increase investment in the US, it could weaken South Korea’s industrial foundation. At the same time, American investment in eco-friendly and renewable energy and its decoupling from China could give Korean companies more opportunities to enter the American market. The South Korean government and private sector need to join hands to respond to this mixture of economic opportunities and crises.

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

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