Election 2020

South Korea Has Got a Lot at Stake in Tuesday’s Vote

From talks with Kim Jong Un to the fate of the U.S. troop deployment there, Tuesday’s election could be critical to a key U.S. ally in Asia.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

South Koreans in the Seoul Railway Station watch on screen as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries on June 30, 2019.
South Koreans in the Seoul Railway Station watch on screen as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries on June 30, 2019. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

SEOUL—If Joe Biden wins Tuesday’s election, he’ll have a lot of work to do to restore America’s position in East Asia. After four years of President Donald Trump berating allies, slapping them with tariffs, and shaking them down for protection money, whoever is in the White House next January will face, for the first time in decades, real questions about the region’s ultimate commitment to the United States.

“Just because South Korea chose the U.S. 70 years ago doesn’t mean it has to choose the U.S. for the next 70 years too,” Lee Soo-hyuck, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, told lawmakers in the National Assembly last month. 

South Korea is watching the election closely, if only because it has been a hectic four years. First, there were Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea, quickly followed by a doomed epistolary love story with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. There were hopes, after almost 70 years, of an end to the Korean War—but those fell by the wayside. Along the way, there was the Trump administration’s insistence on tweaking the existing free trade agreement with Seoul to make it more beneficial to Washington. 

And hanging over it all is the fate—and cost—of the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. With the Trump administration demanding a fivefold increase in Seoul’s financial contribution to the troop deployment, U.S. Forces Korea recently had to inform its Korean employees that they could face furloughs if the dispute were not soon settled.

In the first op-ed printed in Korean media by a U.S. presidential candidate, Democratic challenger Joe Biden promised to work with South Korea, “rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops,” as he wrote. There are no specifics as to how he would settle the current dispute, but the promise to improve relations sounds a lot sweeter than the current threat of pulling out.

The current South Korean administration is also interested in getting a president who can drag North Korea back to the negotiating table and improve inter-Korean relations, which have soured since the failed Hanoi summit in February 2019.

With Biden, some Koreans fear a return to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” which basically translates into not engaging with Pyongyang at all. In one of the presidential debates, Biden did say he’d meet with Kim only under the precondition that the North denuclearize, but no one should hold their breath. The approach is the opposite of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s plan for dealing with the North, which is engagement, diplomacy, and talks.

Meanwhile, as South Koreans keenly watch the election and its implications for the future of America’s alliance structure in East Asia, North Korea is not sitting idle. In a deliberate show of force, North Korea showcased at the Oct. 10 Party Foundation Day parade its largest-yet intercontinental ballistic missile, one that can reach the United States with multiple nuclear warheads. 

[For more of FP’s coverage on the 2020 U.S. election, check out Postcards From the Wedge, our series on how niche foreign-policy issues are playing out in key battleground races, The World’s Election, our collection of articles on how other countries are watching the Nov. 3 vote, and What We’re Missing, a set of daily takes from leading global thinkers on foreign-policy issues not getting enough attention during the campaign.]

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.

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