Seoul sees hope in Biden’s North Korea approach
President Biden has been in office for six weeks. But Seoul already is celebrating the new U.S. president. Not only have the dynamics of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance dramatically improved, but the Moon Jae-in government believes Washington will come up with a realistic North Korea policy it can live with.
The Moon government indeed has welcomed the Biden administration’s focus on working with allies, making use of diplomacy and using multilateralism. But for Seoul, the real proof of improved U.S.-South Korea relations will be in the North Korea “pudding.”
Moon has one year remaining in office, before he will be replaced by a new president following elections scheduled for March 2022. His top foreign policy priority is improving inter-Korean relations.
The South Korean president believes it is his duty to lay the groundwork for a sustainable inter-Korean reconciliation process. For this to happen, it is necessary to ease sanctions on North Korea. Otherwise, there won’t be large-scale inter-Korean economic projects. And this is what North Korea wants: economic development. Pyongyang has made clear that aid and ad hoc projects are not a priority in its relations with Seoul.
The U.S. holds the key to allow sanctions waivers. But will it? After all, the Biden administration maintains that the denuclearization of North Korea remains its ultimate goal.
There are signs, however, that Washington is considering a more realistic approach towards North Korea. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested that nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang could follow the model used with Iran in the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In other words, the U.S. and North Korea could start with an arms control deal that would cap and begin to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. In return, the U.S. and the international community would offer North Korea economic goodies — including sanctions waivers. And here is where the Moon government sees an opportunity to launch its preferred sustainable economic engagement process.
In fact, the ground seems to be shifting in Washington in favor of an arms control deal. Vice President Kamala Harris is on record advocating a more realistic short-term approach, without abandoning the long-term goal of denuclearization. Also, former government officials including Victor Cha, Robert Einhorn and Michele Flournoy have indicated that an interim agreement is more realistic. This is music to the ears of the Moon government, which also believes that demanding North Korea’s denuclearization up front is a recipe for disaster.
Seoul is thus trying to coordinate and influence the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review process. South Korea is aware that the new administration has a host of domestic and foreign policy priorities more important to Washington than North Korea. So it wants to make sure that the policy review process does not drag on for months on end. Or worse, that it ends up with a decision to pursue “strategic patience 2.0.” The policy implemented by the Obama administration essentially kicked the can down the road, allowing North Korea to further develop its nuclear program. But the Biden administration might be tempted to revive President Obama’s policy anyway, given its many other foreign policy concerns. This would be a disaster for Seoul.
Plus, North Korea may be reluctant to come back to the negotiating table in the near future. At the recent 8th Party Congress, Pyongyang restated its commitment to a “head-on breakthrough” strategy to develop “strategic weapons” in preparation for long-term confrontation with the US. Seoul believes that this underscores that Washington should make the first move to kick-start negotiations.
The Moon government is even pondering whether to join a potential Quad+ to show its commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance and, indirectly, influence Biden’s North Korea policy. During the Donald Trump years, South Korea had no incentive to join an anti-China quad. But the Biden administration wants to shift the Quad toward a group of like-minded countries. This is more to the linking of the Moon government, which could see membership of a Quad+ as a means to further strengthen links with the U.S. and gain support for some of its foreign policy goals.
Ultimately, diplomacy and negotiations are the only realistic way to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program. This does not necessarily mean moving away from containment or the sudden withdrawal of sanctions, which neither Washington nor Seoul advocate. But it does mean engaging in a sustainable diplomatic process involving working-level talks and a step-by-step approach. For the South Korean government, the Biden administration brings hope that Washington will try to walk down this path.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and associate professor in International Relations at King’s College, London. Follow him on Twitter @rpachecopardo.
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.