The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

Who Is South Korea Rooting for in the US Presidential Election?

Apparently, Joe Biden is unofficially favored by South Korea, but there are serious concerns about his approach to North Korea.

Mitch Shin
Who Is South Korea Rooting for in the US Presidential Election?
Credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

South Korea, a country highly likely to be affected in many ways by the results of the U.S. presidential election tomorrow, has been preparing for two possible outcomes.

Of course, Seoul cannot officially back either candidate. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who won plaudits as a “negotiator” from the international community as he helped lead the U.S. and North Korean leaders to the table, has not officially mentioned the election. However, the government has analyzed what would be the preferable outcome of the election and who can be better a U.S. president for South Korea.

Over the last decade, South Korean presidents have worked with two different U.S. presidents from different parties on North Korea issues. Barack Obama, the predecessor of Donald Trump, once tried to have a meeting with a North Korean leader, but overall his strategy — called “strategic patience” — on North Korea led to the North developing more threatening weapons capable of targeting not only the South but also the United States.

While Obama left office with a more than 50 percent approval rating at home, he disappointed South Koreans. Besides the North Korea issue, many Koreans were also upset over Obama’s role in a 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement meant to settle the dispute over “comfort women.” After local news outlets reported that Obama put in significant effort to make the two countries reach the agreement, Koreans criticized him as pro-Japanese and strongly demanded that their own government break the pact. After three years, Moon’s government technically abrogated it by dismantling a foundation established under the agreement that was supported by the Japanese government.

After Donald Trump became the U.S. president in 2017, he showed a different style of leadership and strategic negotiation skills on the North Korea issue. South Koreans once supported Trump, viewing him as a strong leader with a special ability to solve complex issues. Some South Koreans still believe that he is the only one who can force North Korea’s denuclearization and distrust Joe Biden, given his experience as a vice president for Obama. However, Trump largely lost Koreans’ confidence because of his unilateral insistence that the country pay $5 billion in host nation support for U.S. troops, more than four times its current contribution level.

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Trump’s refusal to sign off on an agreement that was made in working-level talks led to about 4,500 Korean workers for United States Forces Korea being furloughed in early 2020. The workers were able to get paid since the National Assembly of South Korea passed a bill to support their salaries in April, but both countries still have not bridged the huge gap in defense cost talks.

With Biden favored to win the election, many South Korean experts and analysts have said that Biden is a better candidate for South Korea than Trump.

Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University in South Korea, told The Diplomat that South Korea should hope for Biden to win the election, considering diplomatic relations with the United States and its stance in East Asia.

“Trump will keep pushing South Korea to join the anti-China movement based on his past four-year policies toward China,” said Park, adding that the way Trump deals with the issues related to the South is not constructive.

When Trump started a tech war with China, it affected the Korean corporations that do business with Chinese corporations and the disputes between those two countries are not good for South Korea’s economy, according to Park.

However, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, also told The Diplomat that South Korea will need to find out how it can survive disputes between the U.S. and China, regardless of who wins the election.

“More attention is warranted on how the Trump administration is boxing Biden into a hard-line policy toward Beijing,” Easley said. “Whoever wins the U.S. election, South Korea will face the need to take principled stands on China’s challenges to the status quo in Asia.”

Considering the U.S. perspective on denuclearization, however, Easley explained that pro-engagement politicians in Seoul worry that Biden may not be the one who can bring North Korea’s Kim Jong Un back to the table.

“There are concerns among South Koreans that a Biden administration, rather than support a ‘peace declaration’ and a ‘sanctions relief for denuclearization’ deal with North Korea, may offer ‘strategic patience’ redux while focusing on America’s pandemic recovery,” Easley said. He added, “And if Kim welcomes the new U.S. administration with an ICBM test, instead of engaging in leader-level diplomacy, Biden is more likely to double down on sanctions.”

Experts have predicted that Biden may choose to keep away from the negotiating table until Kim expresses his willingness to give up nuclear weapons. The South Korea government has been checking the polls reported by U.S. news outlets, which suggest Biden will win the election, and preparing for a long-term freeze in talks with the North.

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But given the lessons of 2016, when a widely reported lead for Hillary Clinton evaporated on election day, some expect that Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong Un can continue in the next four years. Experts in the U.S., however, argue Trump has a very slim chance to win the election, and the polls are reliable this time.

“Many point out ‘shy Trump’ supporters whose support might have been underrepresented by polls,” said Nam Tae-hyun, a professor of political science at Salisbury University, in an email interview with The Diplomat.

“However, pollsters made major adjustments in their methods after 2016 mistakes,” Nam said, adding that polls weight for people without college degrees — a group that tends to support Trump — a lot more than before. In addition, Nam pointed out that some polls were within their stated error margin in 2016.

Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri, also told The Diplomat that it does not appear that Trump will be able to replicate the performance he showed in 2016 this year, as Biden is leading several key battleground states.

“Most Americans see this as a critical election and it appears that voter turnout will be high,” Squire said, adding, “So far, state surveys have also leaned in Biden’s direction.”

Biden relayed his message directly to Koreans last week in an article for South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, saying that he will approach the U.S.-ROK alliance in different ways from Trump. He emphasized that both countries are strong allies, a bond that cannot be broken.

South Korea is now bracing for the result, as it will face difficult challenges whoever wins the election.