Seoul Breathes a Sigh of Relief as Trump Loss in Sight

Trump put unprecedented strain on the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
People watch a news program reporting on the U.S. presidential election at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 4.
People watch a news program reporting on the U.S. presidential election at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 4.
People watch a news program reporting on the U.S. presidential election at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 4. Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

With the end of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration in sight, the overall sentiment in South Korea is relief. Under Trump, the U.S.-South Korean alliance came under an unprecedented level of strain. Trump demanded a renegotiation of U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, as well as an extortionate fivefold increase to South Korea's cost contribution for stationing U.S. troops in the country. Many South Koreans sincerely wondered whether the alliance would survive another Trump term. The return of normal diplomacy under the steady hand of former Vice President Joe Biden would be a welcome change.

Some corners of Seoul’s policymaking community, however, remain skeptical of the likely Biden administration. Despite Trump’s unorthodox approach, the thought goes, Trump at least treated the Korean Peninsula as a major priority and tried a different method with North Korea. Although Trump’s photo-ops with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not create any substantive results, his diplomatic efforts were preferable to the “strategic patience” maintained under the administration of former President Barack Obama, which, in practice, amounted to doing nothing while Pyongyang built up its nuclear capacity.

The Biden campaign appears to be aware of this skepticism. In an interview with South Korean media, Biden’s advisor Brian McKeon said, “Joe Biden is not President Obama, and the world is different now four years later because the North Korean nuclear program has moved on.” McKeon also left open the possibility of Biden holding a meeting with Kim. Last week, Biden took the unprecedented step of contributing an op-ed directly to a Korean media outlet, in which he signaled his alignment with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s agenda of inter-Korean peace by pledging “principled diplomacy … toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula.” These words are a good start to rebuild the alliance. If a Biden administration follows through with deeds, even better.

With the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in sight, the overall sentiment in South Korea is relief. Under Trump, the U.S.-South Korean alliance came under an unprecedented level of strain. Trump demanded a renegotiation of U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, as well as an extortionate fivefold increase to South Korea’s cost contribution for stationing U.S. troops in the country. Many South Koreans sincerely wondered whether the alliance would survive another Trump term. The return of normal diplomacy under the steady hand of former Vice President Joe Biden would be a welcome change.

Some corners of Seoul’s policymaking community, however, remain skeptical of the likely Biden administration. Despite Trump’s unorthodox approach, the thought goes, Trump at least treated the Korean Peninsula as a major priority and tried a different method with North Korea. Although Trump’s photo-ops with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not create any substantive results, his diplomatic efforts were preferable to the “strategic patience” maintained under the administration of former President Barack Obama, which, in practice, amounted to doing nothing while Pyongyang built up its nuclear capacity.

The Biden campaign appears to be aware of this skepticism. In an interview with South Korean media, Biden’s advisor Brian McKeon said, “Joe Biden is not President Obama, and the world is different now four years later because the North Korean nuclear program has moved on.” McKeon also left open the possibility of Biden holding a meeting with Kim. Last week, Biden took the unprecedented step of contributing an op-ed directly to a Korean media outlet, in which he signaled his alignment with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s agenda of inter-Korean peace by pledging “principled diplomacy … toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula.” These words are a good start to rebuild the alliance. If a Biden administration follows through with deeds, even better.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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