As the the Biden Administration counts days for office, important developments wait for Korea. Particularly, there are three significant issues for the future of the alliance between the US and Korea. They are North Korea, China, and Japan.
First of all, given the fact that North Korea has more nuclear arms, improved ways of delivery which is much more threatening, with the Trump administration, Biden will be much more cautious towards Kim Jong-un and utilize conventional diplomacy tools when communicating. Biden stated that he is open to diplomatic talks with North Korea if North Korea decreases its nuclear capacity which embeds a strong message of traditional diplomacy. Given the fact that the US will be occupied with its domestic problems such as recovering the economy and coping with the pandemic, the denuclearization of the peninsula might not be a priority for the US which puts South Korea in a difficult position. If so, North Korea might try to gain the attention of Biden through missile tests as it did during the previous US presidencies. The challenge this time would be is that the new US President has already a lot in his hands due to the domestic problems and the pandemic. Furthermore, North Korea could not afford to isolate itself once more as its economy is already stumbling further due to the pandemic and China does not want any destabilization in the peninsula. A negotiation meeting involving South Korea, the US, China, and North Korea would be wise to pursue for the denuclearisation of the peninsula.
Biden and his team would want to enhance the trilateral ties between the South Korea-Japan and the US, as the President elect’s team has already stated that the administration will focus on rebuilding existing alliances in Asia. In doing so, it will aim to handle North Korea. However, as the new Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga stated that he will follow Shinzo Abe’s footsteps, the reconciliation between the two countries will be hard given the recent political developments.
Moreover, the Biden administration would want to keep the Korea alliance strong to counter China as the administration already hinted the necessity for collaboration on some aspects with China and that they need Korea for diplomacy in terms of coping with China. Most of the time, Korea’s foreign policy options have been viewed as limited due to its neighbors such as China, Japan, and Russia and its deep security commitments to the US due to the North Korean threat. Yet, the question of which to choose between the US and China is getting more apparent as South Korea is becoming an advanced nation. Recently, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha stated that “Korea is certainly in a geopolitical position that looks like we are caught in a crossfire. But I think you can turn that around and say it’s leverage.” Also, Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Lee Soo-hyuk stated that “I feel pride that we are now a country that can choose (between the United States and China), not be forced to choose.” (Source: foreignpolicy.com)
Indeed, Korea is in a position that the country proved that it has the potential to become a regional and global power and can act more autonomously than before. First of all, Korea contributes to the global governance and very active globally. However, it is not very active regionally. It is a known fact that Korea sees itself as shrimp among whales and its focus has been extensively on the Korean peninsula and its powerful neighbors but it needs to expand this vision and think of the security and peace aspects of its global contribution. Thus, It needs to expand its regional security activities. Moon’s New Southern Policy is a good initiation but it needs to go beyond the economic terms and more security elements should be elaborated.
In this perspective, Korea needs a more flexible security structure. Even though the US-ROK alliance should be given high importance, Korea should search ways of being more autonomous for the long term as the Trump administration has proven that the alliance can be shaken anytime.
Moreover, a collective security system within the Asia-Pacific region is needed to counter Chinese economic sanctions and coercion. For instance, Korea can enhance its bilateral security alliances. Consequently, South Korea should diversify its economy. Korea already has bilateral security agreements with India and Australia. It should also extend these bilateral security alliances throughout the peninsula.
Korea has proven that it has a real capacity to become a regional and global power than being a shrimp among the whales in recent years. Thus, it has the potential of being an autonomous player than being at the crossroads. Whatever predicaments that the country will face, it has more options than being drift away within the US and China’s new age cold war.