South Korea bets on Biden’s principled diplomacy
South Korea has many reasons to welcome President-elect Joe Biden. After all, the Moon Jae-in administration had multiple problems with President Trump. From the cost of hosting U.S. troops to potential tariffs on steel exports, Seoul and Washington have been at loggerheads multiple times recently — except for North Korea, an issue on which Seoul welcomed Trump’s bet on diplomacy from 2018 onwards. The Moon administration hopes that engagement will continue to define U.S.-North Korea relations.
Above all, South Korea hopes to persuade the incoming administration of the merits of a “small deal” last seriously discussed around the time of the February 2019 Hanoi summit. Back then, there was talk of Pyongyang making some concessions on its nuclear program, such as the verifiable dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and, potentially, other sites. In exchange, the U.S. would offer partial sanctions relief.
From Seoul’s perspective, the advantage of a small deal is that sanctions relief would help kick-start inter-Korean economic cooperation. The Moon administration sees economic projects, including the rebuilding of North Korea’s roads and railroads or the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial complex, as the first steps on the way toward a steady easing of bilateral tensions. But neither these nor other economic projects will go ahead as long as sanctions remain in place. The Moon administration has no intention of breaching them.
A step-by-step approach is certainly not a new idea. Former President Obama’s initial outreach toward “rogue nations” envisioned this type of process. And the Clinton administration also believed in this approach, especially after Kim Dae-jung was elected as South Korea’s president. Seoul thinks that this would be a realistic proposition under Biden.
In fact, the Moon government thinks that Washington and Seoul could offer aid to a North Korea battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. In exchange, they could insist that Pyongyang maintain its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. This could help build trust and serve as a springboard for a more complex negotiation about North Korean denuclearization.
Moon already has stressed the importance of diplomacy in dealing with Pyongyang when congratulating Biden for his election win. Seoul is encouraged by Biden’s references to “principled diplomacy” as his approach towards North Korea. As South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha indicated during her recent Washington visit, South Korea doesn’t expect a return to “strategic patience.” The approach pursued by the Obama administration failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear program. Biden seems to have a more realistic approach.
In this sense, Seoul would welcome a diplomatic process, starting with working-level talks. Seoul did support Trump’s bet for diplomacy, even if unorthodox. But it often felt ignored by the Trump administration, which essentially blocked any attempt at inter-Korean cooperation.
Seoul hopes to persuade the incoming administration that working-level talks between the United States and the two Koreas could help persuade Pyongyang to sign a deal including the ultimate goal of denuclearization. Biden has pledged to work with allies. The Moon government sees an opportunity to launch a sustainable diplomatic process, potentially also involving China, to make North Korea engage in proper negotiations about its nuclear program. This will be part of its sales pitch to Washington.
As Moon has stated, the two Koreas are “stakeholders in the issues of the Korean Peninsula.” Neither of them can be bypassed when discussing denuclearization or reconciliation. From Seoul’s perspective, having both of them at the table during working-level negotiations makes a workable deal more likely. Likewise, Biden’s support for inter-Korean relations would serve as a catalyst for the two Koreas to strengthen engagement. This also would help to allay any fears in Washington that Seoul might try to bypass the Biden administration to pursue inter-Korean reconciliation.
Biden seems to understand the importance of consultations with South Korea. In an op-ed published with South Korean press agency Yonhap News shortly before the election, Biden gave equal weight to denuclearization and Korean reunification (read, reconciliation). Any doubt the Moon government may have harbored about a Biden presidency in terms of its North Korea policy dissipated with that op-ed.
Ultimately, diplomacy and engagement are the only realistic path to try to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. For the Moon government, Biden’s “principled diplomacy” approach is more than welcome. It is the route for South Korea to try to help steer the United States and North Korea toward a deal that would open the door for Seoul to pursue its dream of inter-Korean reconciliation.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and associate professor in International Relations at King’s College, London.
Jihwan Hwang is professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Seoul and a member of the South Korean President’s Commission on Policy Planning.
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