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How Biden Can Navigate a New Era in South Korean Politics

The future of U.S.-ROK relations depends on the United States understanding the priorities of South Korea’s now-dominant liberals.

How Biden Can Navigate a New Era in South Korean Politics
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

China’s rise as the United States’ foremost foreign policy challenge means that, more than ever, South Korea is an important U.S. ally whose geopolitical position and democratic values have a key role in President-elect Joe Biden’s vision to “bring America back.” But significant domestic changes in Seoul over the last four years ensure there will be no easy rewind to the pre-Trump era. South Korea, now led by the single most powerful ruling party in the entire democratic history of that country, has new instincts that have grand policy implications for U.S.-ROK relations. The incoming Biden administration urgently needs to understand the priorities of the ruling liberals in order to tailor a foreign policy strategy most conducive to revitalizing the relationship.

The world did not stop revolving while America went on hiatus. Just as Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, South Koreans woke up to a domestic scandal involving their president that immediately slashed her approval ratings to a shocking 5 percent. An estimated 10 million South Koreans, or a fifth of the entire population, spilled onto the streets in a “candlelight revolution” to oust the conservative President Park Geun-hye in December 2016, leaving her career and entire party in smoking ruin. Both Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak are in prison today for corruption, serving decades-long sentences.

Meanwhile, their progressive rival Moon Jae-in clinched the presidency in the unprecedented vacuum left by Park’s impeachment. His single five-year term is set to end in May 2022, well into the Biden presidency. The 2020 legislative elections – in which South Korean progressives secured a “behemoth” filibuster-proof supermajority in the National Assembly – has all but decimated meaningful conservative opposition, while cementing Moon’s status as the first elected South Korean president not to face a lame duck period. This makes the current ruling party the most dominant political party to hold power in South Korea since democratic rule was first established in 1987.

Foreign Policy Priorities of South Korean Liberals

In broad strokes, the foreign policy of South Korean liberals is clear: promoting harmony with North Korea, justice against Japan, and, wherever possible, autonomy from great power interference, including that  of Washington. That agenda provides a sharp contrast with South Korean conservatives, who are traditionally more likely to favor a hardline on North Korea, strategic cooperation with Japan, and reliance on the U.S.-ROK alliance along the ideological terms of the Cold War. U.S. policymakers are more familiar with the conservative position, but to strengthen ties with Seoul and restore American leadership, the Biden administration will have to take the current government’s foreign policy commitments as the starting point.

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In fact, no incoming Democratic U.S. administration has ever faced an incumbent liberal Korean administration in the 70 years of the relationship. The last time an incoming American president, George W. Bush, sat across a liberal South Korean administration – one that was far less powerful than the current ruling party – his failure to take account of South Korea’s domestic terrain contributed to serious policy gaps that ultimately led to record anti-American sentiment and a majority of younger South Koreans calling for American troop withdrawals. These previous failures underscore the importance of calibrating American strategy to accord with shifting political realities in Seoul.

North Korea

Historically, South Korean liberals have pursued a policy of peaceful coexistence and engagement with North Korea based on pan-Korean ethnic unity, while the conservatives have considered the North a formal state enemy. During conservative administrations, the South Korean Defense Ministry called North Korea an “enemy state” in its white papers, but that label was promptly removed under the progressive administration of President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 and again in 2018 under Moon’s presidency. Notably, the percentage of South Koreans choosing North Korea as the country’s greatest security threat consistently hovered above 50 percent under conservatives Lee (2009-13) and Park (2013-16), but plunged to 30 percent during the liberal administrations of Roh (2004-08) and Moon (2017 to the present).

“We were together for 5,000 years, apart for 70,” said Moon in an emotional appeal to North Koreans in his 2018 Pyongyang Address, in which the term “blood ties” was used to invoke inter-Korean ethnic oneness. In the spirit of peaceful coexistence, South Korean national television recently broadcast North Korea’s entire annual military parade live, including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 26-minute speech, while media now regularly refer to Kim by his full official title of Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.

Moon remains committed to ending the Korean War with a formal peace treaty and to continuing a policy of inter-Korean engagement, which he has called the “most effective national security policy.” Also in the engagement pipeline are plans to reopen the Mount Kumgang resort with North Korea and a joint Seoul-Pyongyang bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics (although the North itself has shown little interest in these proposals of late). It is against this general backdrop of inter-Korean harmony that the ruling liberal party recently passed a controversial anti-leaflet bill that restricts North Korean human rights activism against the Kim regime.

Japan

Trilateral cooperation among Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington is pivotal to a cohesive U.S. alliance architecture in Asia, especially with an assertive China and the North Korean nuclear threat. But, historically, South Korean progressives and Japanese conservatives mix like oil and water. Condemning cooperation with Japan has long been the linchpin of South Korea’s progressive agenda from both a human rights and decolonization perspective. “Cleansing” the country of chinilpa (pro-Japanese) influence is the self-professed priority of Moon and his progressive allies.

Some 80 percent of South Koreans support this sentiment, saying that “vestiges of Japanese imperialism have not been eliminated properly.” Nearly 30 percent of South Koreans now believe Japan to be their greatest security threat, a dramatic jump from 7 percent in 2017 and a level not seen since the last progressive Roh administration in 2008. Under the Moon administration, the South Korean Supreme Court has ordered major Japanese firms Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel to compensate Korean victims of forced wartime labor. South Korea even pursued a $4 million project to cut down 500,000 Japanese larch trees in Taebaek National Park to eradicate traces of Japanese colonial influence. A massive public boycott of Japanese goods took place for much of 2019, and Moon has openly proclaimed to both Trump and former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo that “Japan is a U.S. ally, not ours.”

Anti-Japanese progressive sentiment goes hand-in-hand with inter-Korean unity: In his 2019 Liberation Day Address, Moon called reunification with North Korea the “royal road to…overtaking Japan.” In a hypothetical war between North Korea and Japan, nearly half of South Koreans would back Kim Jong Un, while only 15.1 percent would support Japan. In 2019, a record 77 percent of South Koreans felt “unfriendly” toward Japan, the highest since polling began in 1991, while 87 percent believed Japan had not atoned properly for its World War II atrocities against Koreans.

Meanwhile, a record 74 percent of Japanese felt “distrustful” of Koreans in 2019. Most recently, Japan has attempted to shut down a statue commemorating Korean “comfort women” in Berlin and opposed the candidacy of U.S.-endorsed South Korean Yoo Myung-hee for WTO director-general. The South Korean progressive position on Japan provides an important context for the Moon administration’s decision (since reversed) to repeal the General Security of Military Information Agreement – a key military intelligence sharing pact with Japan – and scrap the 2015 Comfort Women agreement, both seen as symbols of chinilpa influence antithetical to Korean progressive identity.

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China

Ties between Seoul and Beijing have deteriorated since the 2016 decision by conservative President Park to deploy THAAD, a formidable U.S. anti-missile system meant to deter North Korean provocations but perceived in Beijing as a threat to Chinese security. In retaliation, China struck Seoul with more than 40 economic sanctions including bans on consumer goods, cultural imports like K-pop, and even group tourism to South Korea. Fast forward four years and Chinese President Xi Jinping has still yet to visit Seoul once since Moon took office, although in the same period, Xi has held five official summits with Kim Jong Un, including one in Pyongyang. As recently as fall 2020, BTS, the famous K-pop boy band, incurred the wrath of Chinese state media for recognizing American contributions in the Korean War.

Nonetheless, among the United States’ Pacific allies, South Korea remains closest to the Chinese orbit. A relatively low 29 percent of South Koreans have a “very unfavorable” view of China, compared to 52 percent of Japanese and 45 percent of Australians. Even as a plurality (34 percent) of South Koreans now see China as the number one security threat, 52 percent still prefer “friendly cooperation” with Beijing. Historically, South Korean liberals provide a natural counterweight to conservatives who align more closely with Washington in the U.S.-China rivalry. During the THAAD crisis, in fact, current President Moon criticized the deployment of the U.S. missile system on the Korean Peninsula. Even in the midst of the global pandemic, South Korean liberals made it a centerpiece of their foreign policy not to ban travel from China. By far, China remains South Korea’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than a quarter of South Korean exports in 2019 – an uneasy statistic for any Korean leader mindful of South Korea’s slowing economic growth.

South Korea has notably resisted pressure from the United States to ban Huawei, concerned that it would trigger a “second THAAD incident,” while maintaining strategic ambiguity on both Xinjiang and Hong Kong. When Trump invited South Korea to join the G-7 Summit this year, South Korean media immediately called the invitation “burdensome” lest Washington attempt to enlist South Korea in a “united front against China.” A 2019 survey shows that even among South Koreans who believe the rise of China is “not helpful” to South Korea, a plurality (49.5 percent) still believe Seoul should maintain neutrality between Washington and Beijing.

The United States

Support for the U.S.-ROK alliance among South Koreans remains extremely high at 90 percent. The United States remains Seoul’s second-largest trading partner, accounting for 13.6 percent of South Korean trade in 2019. But the relationship is not without its cracks, only some of which can be attributed to the idiosyncrasies of the Trump presidency. The U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, faced criticisms over his mustache because it reminded the South Korean public of colonial Japan – he later shaved it off, with the rationale that a clean shave made wearing a face mask more comfortable. Protesters were destroying the U.S. ambassador’s portrait in the streets as recently as December 2019. South Korean students, characterized by local media as a “progressive civic group,” even broke into the U.S. ambassador’s residence to protest the American troop presence in South Korea, after tensions broke out publicly over alliance cost-sharing between Seoul and Washington. More than two-thirds of South Koreans oppose an increase in alliance cost-sharing while 55 percent believe South Korea and the United States are no longer aligned on regional security issues. To be sure, these tensions have not translated to a dent in overall support for the alliance, but they highlight pressure points that must be managed.

Dating back to the founding of the republic, South Korean progressives have long fought for autonomy from foreign powers and the ability to dictate the terms of inter-Korean peace without great power intervention. While the ruling liberal party has never opposed the U.S. troop presence, it has disliked the optics of South Korean dependence, recently negotiating the return of 12 American military sites to Seoul. A contrast to conservatives, the progressives have sought to expedite the return of wartime operational control (OPCON) from U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) to the ROK military, which necessarily decreases Seoul’s reliance on the United States for its defense.

The ruling party’s preference for harmony with North Korea also has consequences for the U.S. alliance: The two allies are no longer in lockstep on the threat perception of North Korea as the ongoing enemy of the Korean War, the theoretical foundation for the alliance. Already, under the Moon administration, Seoul and Washington have canceled a number of joint military drills to support the atmosphere of inter-Korean engagement. Moon Chung-in, a South Korean thought leader whose comments reflect the Moon administration’s strategy, publicly argued in Foreign Affairs that the presence of U.S. forces would be “difficult to justify” if a peace treaty were signed with North Korea. He was subsequently tapped as ambassador to the United States, and is currently special adviser to the South Korean president after the United States reportedly opposed his ambassadorship in private. Moon Chung-in has contended that Seoul could continue to engage with Pyongyang regardless of future U.S. opposition.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

While the U.S.-ROK alliance is by no means under an existential threat in the short term, the Biden administration faces a ruling liberal party with a distinctly pragmatic, rather than ideological, approach to the alliance – one defined not by Cold War competition, but on the terms of its own regional vision for peace with North Korea, justice against Japan, and optimization between Beijing and Washington. The following recommendations are just some ways in which Biden would immediately bring warmth to a crucial relationship with Seoul.

First, Biden must resolve the alliance cost-sharing dispute. Disputes over defense cost-sharing have placed strain on the alliance and weakened U.S. strength in the eyes of Beijing and Pyongyang, with President Trump at one point demanding a five-fold increase in Seoul’s financial contribution and threatening to withdraw troops. Biden has already promised not to “extort” his allies and should take Seoul’s offer to increase its burden-sharing by up to 13 percent.

Second, the Biden administration must respect South Korean reluctance to take a side in the U.S.-China rivalry. Seoul prefers to navigate the growing security threat of China through neutrality. A famous Korean proverb guides South Korean thinking in this regard: “It is the shrimp that gets crushed when two whales fight.” With South Korean liberals in power, forcing a choice tends to intensify insecurities that South Korea is just a chess piece in U.S. rivalry with Beijing, an American watchtower on a distant frontier bordering China. Seoul is 951 kilometers from Beijing but 11,116 kilometers from Washington. Six times as many Chinese tourists visit South Korea as visit the United States; South Korea now sends more students to China than to America; China accounts for more than twice the volume of South Korean trade as does the United States. From Seoul’s perspective, diplomatic wiggle room is indispensable to its economic survival. Forcing a choice, for instance by pressuring Seoul to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, will immediately trigger South Korean fears of becoming a target of both Chinese and American retaliation: of being crushed by the two whales. Siding with America must be an attractive choice even for an ally, not only strategically but also economically.

Biden should also support continued South Korean engagement with North Korea. South Korean liberals do not share the U.S. perception that the Trump-Kim summits were mere photo-ops. At the time, 81 percent of South Koreans supported the summit, and over 78 percent of South Koreans considered Kim Jong Un to be “trustworthy” or “very trustworthy.” According to a survey conducted in December 2020, 73 percent of South Koreans currently believe Biden should restart talks with Kim. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, criticized by the Republicans as appeasement. The role reversal now in Democrats criticizing Trump’s diplomatic gamble with the North should be weighed against South Korean support for the current status quo of continued engagement. Reverting to a hardline on North Korea in the absence of a major North Korean provocation will immediately create tensions with Seoul that can complicate Washington’s broader efforts to bolster its alliance infrastructure in Asia.

Finally, Biden and his team must mediate South Korea-Japan cooperation with a potential trilateral summit. The Trump administration was notably absent as Seoul and Tokyo descended into a bitter historical dispute over forced labor and comfort women. In the United States’ absence, China, Japan, and South Korea have pursued trilateral summits. It should be a priority for Biden to act as a bridge and provide a platform for Seoul and Tokyo to at least come to the table without either side losing face.

The unprecedented power of South Korea’s ruling liberal party means that come January 20, Biden must navigate the alliance in a way that most effectively communicates his familiarity with the new contours of Korean politics. With China’s rise, what hangs in the balance may not just be the future of the alliance, but the restoration of U.S. global leadership itself.

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This piece has been updated to reflect the given rationale for Ambassador Harry Harris’ decision to shave his mustache.

Brian Kim is a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School, where he is currently a Herbert Hansell Fellow at the Center for Global Legal Challenges. His work has been published in Lawfare, The Diplomat, The National Interest, Global Asia, The Asan Forum, and the Asian Jurist.