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How U.S. Presidential Election will Influence Washington’s N. Korea Policy

2020-10-29

ⓒ YONHAP News

The November 3rd presidential election in the U.S. is less than a week away. The election has shaped up into a tight race between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. South Korea is paying keen attention to the election result, which will certainly influence regional diplomacy. Trump and Biden had a heated discussion on their North Korea policy during their final TV debate on October 22. Here’s political commentator Choi Young-il with more. 


Trump stressed that the Obama administration failed to resolve North Korea-related issues and that the U.S. and North Korea were driven close to the brink of war. Trump said that he managed to prevent war by meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as many as three times. Biden, on the other hand, called Kim a thug and accused Trump of legitimating the North Korean leader. He questioned the usefulness of Trump’s North Korea policy. But he still voiced certain conditions, namely, denuclearization, under which he could meet with Kim.


Trump is likely to continue with his appeasement policy with North Korea, while Biden is expected to take a carrot-and-stick approach. Trump held his summit with Kim Jong-un twice, apart from their brief, unexpected encounter at the truce village of Panmunjom. They have also exchanged letters. North Korea has refrained from test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland. Trump has touted this as his important diplomatic achievement. As the Trump government has used the North Korean nuclear issue for domestic politics, Trump’s second administration, if inaugurated, is very likely to push for a third summit with North Korea to produce some diplomatic result. 


If Trump wins reelection, it is highly likely that he will seek to improve relations with North Korea in the early stage of his second term. With the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization in mind, he will probably push to officially declare an end to the Korean War or sign a peace treaty by exchanging letters or directly meeting with Kim Jong-un. North Korea will welcome Trump’s win because it will have more room to move bilateral relations forward through top-down diplomacy, based on trust between the two leaders. 


If Biden wins the election, the former vice president in the Barack Obama administration is likely to inherit Obama’s North Korea policy, under which Washington strengthened sanctions against Pyongyang. 

Biden has criticized Trump for letting North Korea possess more weapons and missiles. Given that, Biden might adopt a hostile policy against North Korea. But some analysts point out that the situation has changed now, so Biden may induce China and Russia to pressure North Korea in order to draw the North to the negotiation table, rather than adopting Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang. Yet, the Biden-led U.S. government is unlikely to engage in talks with North Korea until detailed preparations for talks are made. 


Both Trump and Biden have the same goal of achieving North Korea’s denuclearization and establishing peaceful relations with the communist state. But their methods are different. Biden will not adopt the top-down approach of Trump. Although he said he could meet Kim Jong-un on the conditions of North Korea’s denuclearization, more complicated working-level negotiations should come first. That is, the two sides should enter the phase of completing negotiation proposals before Biden meets Kim for a new breakthrough. Biden may employ a new strategy that blends both policies of Obama and Trump. 


It is true that Trump’s unconventional diplomacy contributed to materializing North Korea-U.S. summit talks. The reelection of Trump may prove to be a positive development for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been in sync with Trump’s North Korea policy. In contrast, Biden’s North Korea policy is based on a bottom-up method, in which working-level talks start first, and it may cause a setback in Moon’s plan for summit diplomacy. 


But if Biden is elected, both the U.S. and South Korea will have administrations of Democratic presidencies again, like in the years of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. That might be good news for South Korea, when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Moon has repeatedly stressed the need for an end-of-war declaration. In fact, the U.S. Congress resolution calling for a formal end to the Korean War was mostly supported by Democratic Party members. 


Trump once pledged to put top priority on the solution of the North Korean nuclear issue if he is reelected. In the initial period of Trump’s second term, the South Korean government will put much effort into its diplomatic strategy aimed at helping to improve North Korea-U.S. relations. Under a Biden presidency, however, the Seoul government may undergo a major policy change. 


If history is any guide, South Korea and the U.S. were close under Democratic presidencies. During the years of the Clinton administration in the U.S., for example, the then-Kim Dae-jung government in South Korea successfully pushed for the so-called Sunshine Policy of advocating reconciliation with North Korea. A Biden-led U.S. government will have a policy direction similar to that of the current South Korean government. If Biden is elected, we can anticipate cooperation between the two governments, both led by the Democratic Party. 


Meanwhile, North Korea has stood aloof from the result of the U.S. presidential election, at least on the surface, saying that it doesn’t matter who wins. But inside, the North is obviously getting nervous. If Trump is reelected, experts predict that North Korea will actively seek summit-level letter exchanges and another bilateral summit. If Biden is elected, however, Pyongyang may attempt to find a breakthrough in its negotiations with the U.S. by using South Korea as leverage. But if this method proves ineffective, North Korea may resort to armed provocations to raise its bargaining power. 


If Trump gets reelected, Kim Jong-un may send a congratulatory message and possibly a delegation to the U.S. as a goodwill gesture. A mood for dialogue will then be created naturally. Biden’s presidency, on the other hand, may discourage North Korea to some extent because it will take a considerable amount of time to hold working-level talks, restore trust and assure the U.S. of its commitment to denuclearization. Amid the strained bilateral ties, North Korea will probably show off its military power so the U.S. cannot ignore it. For that reason, I think the possibility of North Korea’s military provocation is high. 


The future of North Korea-U.S. negotiations depends on the result of the U.S. presidential election next week. Whoever wins the election, it is important for the Seoul government to further cement the South Korea-U.S. alliance and establish a security cooperation system among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan for North Korea’s denuclearization. South Korea should devise its own effective North Korea policy, in cooperation with the new U.S. government.

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