US Presidential Elections and the Korean Peninsula
In the United States, participants in the presidential election that will be held on November 3, have been determined. The Republican nominee is the White House’s current head, Donald Trump, and the Democratic nominee is former Vice President Joe Biden. In this context, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea has launched a working group to forecast election results and analyze the promises and political positions of the two candidates as well as their possible impact on diplomacy, security, and the economy.
A reasonable step, since there are less than two months left until November 3, 2020, and, according to American experts, it is difficult to determine the clear winner. Still, this text will be about how the election results will affect the Korean Peninsula situation. To a lesser extent, the region as a whole.
Donald Trump intends to continue his current policy, the main principles of which are strengthening protectionism and creating new jobs. In his opinion, to be a global hegemon, the United States must first focus on internal problems and not waste forces and resources outside.
In this context, Trump intends to stop the endless and unprofitable from his point of view wars that the United States is waging: note that, despite the hostile rhetoric and aggressive Twitter, Trump so far, has turned out to be one of the few US presidents under whom the US military did not find another enemy.
On the other hand, Joe Biden intends to preserve the traditional model of US leadership in foreign policy, updating diplomatic ties and relations from which Trump pulled out as unprofitable. Biden wants to rejoin the world health organization and join the Paris Climate Agreement (UNFCCC), believing that Trump’s steps have led to a weakening of the US position in the world.
In terms of relationships, Trump is a more difficult partner for Seoul (South Korea) than Biden. If re-elected, he will further strengthen his “America first” policy, including the desire to “make allies pay their fair share.” According to experts of the Republic of Korea, having untied his hands for a second term, he will try to recall foreign military contingents to their homeland and force the allies to increase their share in joint defense spending with the United States.
While Washington and Seoul are still at an impasse over how much more burden South Korea should shoulder, Seoul offers a maximum of +13% of the previous amount. At the same time, Washington wants at least 50%. If re-elected, Trump will continue the pressure. Also, it is not known what Trump’s policy will be on maintaining the American contingent in the Republic of Korea in its current form. They may try to reduce it.
A similar situation applies to the Korea-US bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), which, according to Trump, created jobs only for South Korea: “We made a terrible deal with South Korea, remember? A particular case with Hillary Clinton. She said it would give 250,000 jobs, and she was right, except that, unfortunately, the jobs went to South Korea, not to us”.
Under Biden, such demands are likely to be curtailed, but one must remember that in general, Seoul’s economic and value dependence on Washington will not go anywhere.
The North Korean agenda of the two candidates differ more clearly. Donald Trump relies on friendly relations with Kim Jong-un (Supreme Leader of North Korea). He constantly gives reminders that another President would have brought the matter to war, which would have cost the United States “Very Dearly.” While the process “is paused,” each participant receives a minor victory: from Trump, the sanctions are working, and North Korean intercontinental Ballistic missiles (ICBMs) don’t fly; from the perspective of Kim, it is time to shift all their focus for a country’s economic development, overcoming the consequences of the pandemic and adjusting it to the next round of sanctions, that will allow him to continue to improve the standard of living of the population and to lead by carrot, not just by stick.
Nobody wants to make deals with a “lame duck”, but if Trump triumphs for a second term, we can expect a formal continuation of the dialogue, more precisely, a series of demonstration events designed to show that the discussion continues and there is no deadlock in it. Yes, significant counter steps will be expected from America. Still, for the sake of four years of calm in this direction, Trump may take a couple of steps towards it if his domestic political positions strengthen. So far, Trump has promised a “quick deal” if re-elected, but details remain in the shadows. The author expects a statement about ending the Korean war as a symbolic gesture, yet crucial for both sides.
From Biden & Co’s point of view, Trump is flirting with a tyrant without any result. The fact that North Korea does not launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) or conducts nuclear tests does not mean that the North’s nuclear missile program has stalled. No, it continues, which means that the problem is not solved. Also, if for the Republicans, the number 1 problem related to North Korea is the Nuclear Programm for the Korean Peninsula, for the Democrats – it is an oppressive regime that violates human rights. Let’s not forget that the US Democratic party’s agenda mainly revolves around protecting specific oppressed categories and from the standpoint of human rights violations, “digging up the North” is very convenient.
Biden himself was a scathing critic of Trump’s policies and his meetings with Kim Jong-un, which led North Korean media to call him a rabid dog that should be beaten to death for insulting the country’s “highest dignity.”
Therefore, in the event of his victory, everything that Trump and Kim have achieved will be reset to zero. Reuters openly say that if Biden wins, “there will be no more exchange of love letters or a spectacular summit”. There will be an attempt at “coordinated efforts” to build a coalition against North Korea, strengthen its diplomatic isolation, and “draw attention to human rights violations in the country in a way that has been lacking in current US policy.” In doing so, he will rely on hawks like Victor Cha or Evans Revere, and to a greater extent, take into account the requirements of Japan. For example, start making a big fuss over its citizens abducted by North Korea.
Revere admits that “the American arms control community is likely to have a strong voice in the Biden administration and will argue it is time to accept that North Korea is now a nuclear power“. But the conclusion from this will be made not “With the new nuclear power, we must conduct dialogue as an equal” but “Crush it at any cost.”
Of course, action will generate opposition, and experts suggest that a Biden victory could push North Korea into hostile action. At the very least, new demonstrations of North Korean military power “within acceptable limits,” such as Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile tests, and as a maximum, a break in the gentleman’s agreement on Intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear tests, which North Korea continues to observe, despite words that there is no longer a moratorium. However, according to Revere and his colleagues, such actions will only help to highlight the threat posed by the Kim regime, gaining more understanding from allies and justifying retaliatory measures.
Now about what will NOT change regardless of who takes the White House.
President Trump’s confrontation between Beijing and Washington continues, without prejudice of the President and his entourage, but with many complex reasons, both technical and ideological. China becomes a challenge in terms of having a successful alternative system of values, extremely dangerous for the US hegemony supported by a) the leading position it has held on the market of meanings and b) the idea that the liberal democracy the US embodies may have flaws, but by the sum of the factors it is still the best model.
Another thing is that if in the confrontation with China, Trump was more focused on direct pressure or methods of economic war, the Democrats will use more subtle ways. They are primarily attempting to brand Beijing as trampling on universal values. We may see increased support within Chinese dissidents and separatists, as well as a more effective fanning of hysteria around the fact that human rights are violated in China (up to the possible fabrication of witnesses or taking on faith outright fakes from the repertoire of the Falun Gong sect).
The sanctions loop will not weaken but strengthen. Although Trump criticized Obama’s policies, he continued Obama’s course of “strategic patience,” which consisted of refraining from risky and dangerous areas, gently rocking the boat, and waiting for North Korea to break in the ring of increasing sanctions. Moreover, he supplemented this with the concept of a secondary boycott, and most likely, Biden will continue this line.
But back to South Korea. Experts contacted by the Korea Times believe that the two candidates show both their good and bad sides for South Korean diplomacy and national security. On the one hand, the current problems with the Free Trade Agreement or the distribution of military spending, which make Trump the worse candidate. On the other hand, Moon Jae-In desires to promote the agenda of inter-Korean reconciliation, and here Biden is worse.
For North Korea, Trump is more acceptable: a bad peace is better than a good quarrel, and in the case of Biden, the probability of the latter increases. The author traditionally hopes for the best but is preparing to consider all options.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, leading science associate of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the RAS, specially for the internet magazine “ New Eastern Outlook”.
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