Election 2020

For South Korea’s President, Biden’s Win Is Both Good News and Bad News

A new administration points to a resolution of some thorny bilateral disputes—but could threaten Moon Jae-in’s cherished rapprochement with the North.

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.

People watch a television news program reporting on the U.S. election with images of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 9.
People watch a television news program reporting on the U.S. election with images of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 9. Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

SEOUL—The first thing South Korean President Moon Jae-in tweeted on Sunday was diplomatic congratulations to the new U.S. president-elect, Joe Biden.

“Congratulations to @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris. Our alliance is strong and the bond between our two countries is rock-solid. I very much look forward to working with you for our shared values. I have great expectations of advancing and opening up the future development of our bilateral relations,” the tweets read.

“Katchi kapshida!” he added, which is the official slogan for the South Korean-U.S. alliance and Korean for “Let’s go together!”

And Moon does have a lot to be happy about when it comes to a Biden administration. The former vice president is a lot more popular than President Donald Trump among South Koreans, who according to Gallup Korea favored Biden 59 percent to 16 percent for Trump. And Biden would likely de-escalate the ongoing dispute over the shared cost of hosting U.S. troops in Korea.

“While there haven’t been any specific indications of where Biden leans on this issue, it seems likely that they will push for a quick and fair resolution—probably working with South Korea’s last offer,” said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and the deputy director of 38 North, a North Korea watching website. 

Clearing up that dispute would remove a source of bilateral acrimony and secure funding for furloughed Korean employees at U.S. bases—a massive boon for Moon.

Where the headaches might come is from Biden’s stance on North Korea. He has ruled out following the same kind of open-arms outreach to Pyongyang that the Trump administration pursued, and will likely have enough domestic and foreign-policy challenges to deal with early in his term.

“The biggest concern is if North Korea is not high on Biden’s priority list, and these kinds of messages don’t get conveyed early and in an expedient and convincing way, it leaves room for North Korea to guess what a Biden administration will do and test its resolve early in likely counterproductive ways,” Town said.

Biden has said that he will not meet Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, without preconditions such as denuclearization. There are fears here that the United States might revert to former President Barack Obama’s approach of “strategic patience” when it comes to North Korea. The Trump administration did manage to set up summits and foster hope of progress in terms of the inter-Korean relationship, but didn’t derail North Korea’s weapons program. This fall, the country showed off its biggest, newest missile—one that can hit the continental United States.

But because so much of Moon’s political project is tied up with rapprochement and engagement with the North, he would not be interested in a return to the days of strategic patience.

“Moon’s near sole focus on North-South relations left both him and his party dependent on its success, which has not proven sustainable without international cooperation,” Town said. 

Kim has yet to comment on the results of the U.S. elections, and there’s speculation as to whether or not North Korea will test the big new missiles. But given that there’s no interest from the North in denuclearizing, there’s little prospect of any further meetings anytime soon between Pyongyang and Washington. 

That could give the South a more leading role in improving relations—or could simply mean going back to the waiting game altogether. While Moon congratulates Biden and emphasizes the alliance, he’s bracing for everything from early North Korean provocations to U.S. silence.

“As Moon’s legacy is so tied to North-South relations, he needs the process to continue,” Town said.

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

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