This photo illustration taken in Seoul on November 9, 2020, shows the front pages of South Korea's newspapers carrying stories and pictures of US President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Need some fast foreign policy wins, Joe Biden? In that case, it’s time to brush up on your soju and kimchi game.

With all indications being that the Democratic Party’s candidate is set to become the 46th president of the United States in January, there are pressing matters pending on the Korean peninsula.

The Northeast Asian flashpoint is a perennial – and perennially intractable – challenge for US presidents. Indeed, it has been a graveyard for US policy since 1945, when what would become two states arose separated by the 38th Parallel.

But there is some good news.

Incumbent President Donald Trump has seeded the ground with some easy wins that could be won right off the bat – assuming Biden’s incoming economic, diplomatic and security teams are willing to prioritize Korean issues.

And, clearly, Biden has some Korean input on his team. In October, he generated surprise goodwill among the Korean communities worldwide when he sent an online message – partly written in Hangeul, the Korean alphabet – wishing all Koreans a happy Chuseok – the national harvest thanksgiving holiday.

Politically, cross-Pacific stars are at long last aligning. By repeated quirks of electoral misfortune over the last two decades, there have been opposed parties in power across the Pacific since the Clinton administration exited Washington’s corridors of power.

The left-wing Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments in Seoul had to deal with the right-wing administrations of George W Bush in Washington. Subsequently, the conservative Seoul administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hae had to contend with the liberal Barack Obama administrations.

And most recently, President Donald Trump’s Republicans have faced off with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democrats.

Biden and Moon

Now Biden’s apparent win places more complementary bedfellows in power in Seoul and Washington – respectively, the Democratic Party of Korea and the US Democratic Party.

For better or for worse, incumbent Trump has offered Biden plentiful opportunities to get off to a flying start with both Koreas.

Moon’s administration, which took power in 2017, has had a vexed relationship with Trump, who took office in the same year. For one thing, Trump and Moon never seemed to hit it off personally in the way Trump and Japan’s immediate past Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – a fellow conservative – did. Moon and Biden look more complementary.

And Trump was hardly kind to South Korea. On the economic front, he demanded a renegotiation of a bilateral free trade agreement that had been negotiated in 2007. Even after that, he has continued to grumble about South Korea’s trade surplus with the US.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in speaks to the press as US President Donald Trump looks on following a meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, June 30, 2019. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski

On the South Korea-US military alliance front, Trump sought to massively – by 480-500% if unconfirmed accounts coming from the United States and Seoul are accurate – raise the hosting costs South Korea pays for US troops based there.

On the geostrategic front, his trade war against China put South Korea (and neighbor Japan) in a ticklish position. Electronic components are South Korea’s biggest export sector, and the country’s Korean chip flagships, Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, were both required to halt shipments to China’s Huawei and SMIC after Washington sanctioned exports.

However, for Moon, Trump had a saving grace – a massive saving grace, that may well have trumped all the downsides.

A landmark of the administration was Trump’s audacious, unprecedented and historical engagement of a sitting North Korean leader directly. Given that cross-Demilitarized Zone political and economic engagement was a central plank in his nationalist administration’s policy deck, Moon proved to be the most supportive democratic world leader for Trump’s initiative.

The promise of that high-level engagement was never actualized. However, a diplomatic precedent – for top-level North Korean-US summits – had been set.

So what are the easy wins that Biden can seize in the aftermath of Trumpian policy toward South Korea?

On bilateral trade, he can return to politics as usual – absent Trumpian rants, grumbles, tweets and general rudeness. In that sense, he can assure Moon and South Korea that he will not follow his predecessor and squeeze their country on trade: Fair’s fair. Markets are certainly upbeat and the Korean won hit a 21-month high Monday on news of Biden’s result.

On the alliance, he can return to the pre-Trump status quo – ie, a recognition that the benefits of the partnership are a two-way street, not simply a favor to South Korea.

And indeed, given the ever-increasing prominence of China on US security radars, South Korea provides a superb forward base from which US troops can monitor Chinese military assets and movements.

Negotiations on defense cost-sharing that have failed to reach agreement since 2019 could be swiftly concluded. A modest cost increase concession from the South Korean side, rather than the massive bill Trump had slapped on the table, would provide both parties with a painless win-win.

Sanctions on China tech firms are trickier as one of the biggest foreign policy questions hanging over the Biden presidency is that of his stance on China. While he is not expected to be as hardline as the tariff-wielding, sanction-brandishing Trump, tensions between a rising, authoritarian China, and a flailing, democratic America are not going to evaporate with a change of administration.

What kind of ear Washington will offer to Seoul – and, by the same token, Tokyo – as it formulates its policies toward Beijing is far from clear. Even so, it seems almost certain that the more diplomatic and multilateral Biden will at least make a show of listening to allies on such critical global issues.

Another big question involves North Korean relations. Again, it is far from clear that Biden will follow the precedent set by Trump. However, any re-ignition of top-level dialog would be enthusiastically cheer-led by Moon and his team.

In a speech aimed at the Biden administration that was provided to foreign reporters in Seoul this week, Moon said: “We expect the environment will be created that will enable us to seek new opportunities and solutions for inter-Korean relations,” while reiterating his commonly voiced hopes of “achieving denuclearization and establishing peace on the Korean peninsula.”

US Vice President Joe Biden looks through binoculars towards North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette during a tour of the Demilitarized Zone near the border village of Panmunjom on December 7, 2013. Photo: AFP/ Lee Jin-man

Biden and Kim

On the basis of the still unresolved 1950-53  Korean War, the overall odiousness of the totalitarian North Korean regime and, perhaps, an understanding that North Korea is an area in which there is little or no political capital to be made, pre-Trump US presidents had refused to engage North Korea’s ruling Kims.

That lack of engagement is mirrored across the board. There are no Pyongyang-Washington diplomatic relations and no commerce – just a history of war, military confrontation, ill will and mistrust on both sides.

In this sense, the ever-unconventional Trump hurled down a gauntlet for future US presidents by kick-starting, in 2018, summit diplomacy with the leader of the enemy state.

In so doing, he courted disapproval and fury among his opponents for recognizing a dictator. However, given the failure of US diplomatic policy to advance its interests in North Korea over the decades, other voices in both Seoul and Washington lauded his move.

Still, results have been, at best, mixed.

The first “get to meet you” summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore n 2018 concluded with a broad and generalized document that set out principles and granted both Trump and Kim significant political elbow room. However, it did not compel either side to concessions or timetables.

Their second summit in Hanoi in 2019 was expected to deliver some kind of “small deal.” However, clearly Trump wanted a big deal, while his hawkish national security advisor, neo-con John Bolton, may have skewed the pitch. The summit ended early, with no agreement, leaving both the North Koreans – and South Koreans, who had been eagerly awaiting a positive outcome – nonplussed.

Since then, despite a Kim-Trump photo-op at the DMZ and “love letters” between the two, there has been no progress. Working-level negotiations have stalled, and some harsh rhetoric has been sent Washington’s (and now Biden’s) way by Pyongyang state media.

Yet Kim has largely kept faith. He has not repudiated his meetings with Trump – despite what must have been a loss of face among his own elite. Nor has he broken his self-set moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands in the first-ever meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader, in Singapore in 2018. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

So where does all this leave Biden?

As of this writing, North Korea has not sent any official messages on the nascent US election results.

And in an October military parade, North Korea rolled out its biggest ICBM, a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle fitted to carry it and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. Experts are divided over how many nuclear warheads North Korea may possess.  Estimates range from the high tens to the low hundreds.  

What is clear is that North Korea possesses an increasing range of assets that pose a direct threat to the US mainland.

The question is what Biden is going to do about it.

He could return to the so-called “strategic patience” policy of the Barack Obama administration. While administration officials refused to acknowledge any such policy existed, the term gained widespread currency in wonkish circles to describe a policy of doing very little beyond hoping that sanctions would somehow compel North Korea to disarm and/or change its stripes.

That did not happen. But if Biden wants to push things forward, there are some moves he could make.

One easy win that was largely overlooked by the Trump administration would be an initiative to formally end the Korean War, which concluded with a 1953 armistice, rather than a peace treaty. An “end the war” treaty has been repeatedly mentioned by Seoul.

While a peace treaty would not necessarily lead to any strategic shift on the peninsula – two Koreas would still exist, as would the DMZ, and US troops would not have to leave the South – it would be a positive signal to Kim. It would also require North Korean and US negotiators to work together.

The latter point should not be overlooked. So deep is the record of distrust between the two nations that any relationship that creates any trust-building precedent, however modest, is of import.

The bigger question is whether Biden would meet Kim in order to follow up on Trump’s summits and sign a deal of some kind.

The scale of any deal on denuclearization is likely to be small. The most widely anticipated quid pro quo would involve the abandonment by North Korea of certain strategic assets in turn for a relaxation of certain US-UN sanctions.

But any deal would almost certainly involve a leaders’ summit. And Biden’s willingness to engage Kim personally has not yet been crystallized.

A Washington insider, writing in Asia Times, recently noted that with Biden “the era of love letters would be over.” Moreover, Biden would only meet Kim if the meeting “has been prepared thoroughly in advance.”

The latter point is germane. One of the issues bedeviling the summits between Kim and Trump was the repeated failures of ministerial- and working-level teams to reach any agreements.

Certainly, there is much to be said for a diplomatic bottom-up approach. However, the lack of common ground for professionals of both parties to stand upon after so many decades of mistrust and vitriol should not be underestimated.

The promise of the Kim-Trump meetings was that a top-down approach would create a cascade effect. That dynamic should not be overlooked.

Likewise, while “love letters” are an odd form of communication between world leaders, it seems churlish to cut a channel that offers no downside and could, in fact, offer an upside. Finally, the writer states: “A photo-op will not be enough to justify a meeting with the president of the United States.”

That sounds like the reasonable stance of a pragmatic and professional politician. However, it overlooks East Asian cultural mores.

While Asian protocols and ceremonials may be irksome to many Western executives and politicians – and, yes, this writer confesses, also to Western journalists – these matters are given great weight in East Asia. This is particularly true in North Korea, where ceremonies and parades are huge facets of political life.

Participants carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung and late leader Kim Jong Il during a mass rally on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, September 2018. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

While many Americans may reasonably view a photo opp as a concession to a dictator, seen through an Asian prism, offering Kim “face” is an important professional courtesy.

Moreover, all these initiatives – ending the Korean War, maintaining leader-to-leader communications and offering Kim a summit with Biden – would be welcomed in Seoul.

In sum, Trump has left Biden with an open door to push on.

True, he is unlikely to be the president who “solves” the North Korean issue. But simply by publicly declaring his willingness to follow in Trump’s footsteps and meet with Kim, he would put himself in a position to move matters forward, improve the relationship and lower tensions in Northeast Asia.

The conventional alternative – for Biden to leave foreign policy to wonks and diplomatic underlings who have signally failed to move US policy beyond containment of North Korea – while holding his nose and keeping his distance offers little alternative beyond a return to a long, long status quo.