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Biden’s Peninsula: A Korea Policy Outline for a New Administration

Among the variety of foreign policy challenges the new Biden administration faces, effectively coordinating a policy toward the Korean peninsula is a critical challenge. After all, the peninsula is home to a key adversary and ally.

Joe Biden receives a briefing at the Demilitarized Zone

North Korea

The biggest issue inherited by the Biden administration is unraveling the personalized approach to North Korea favored by his predecessor. After all, the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea ventured between “fire and fury” and budding bromance at the whim of President Trump. It is unlikely that the Biden administration will skirt the traditional policy process in the same manner the Trump administration did. Lacking a personal relationship may make Kim feel isolated and unappreciated, providing more fuel for his belligerent behavior on the international stage.

The Biden administration will first have to grapple with a North Korea intent on expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities. In a report to the 8th Worker’s Party Congress in January 2021, Kim Jung-un reiterated that the development of a strong nuclear arsenal is a necessity to building a strong socialist state while also highlighting North Korea’s intent to continue its exploration of nuclear weapons despite the outcome of the American election. With such a priority on nuclear development, the Kim regime may test the resolve of the new administration by continuing to pursue a more provocative nuclear policy early in the Biden administration. While a nuclear test is unlikely within the first 100 days of Biden’s tenure, one can never be completely ruled out.

Additionally, North Korea is likely to continuing pursuing a strong, diverse set of ballistic missiles, including an ICBM capable of accurately hitting the United States. During North Korea’s October 2020 military parade, Kim Jung-un made a point to highlight new missile systems—including ICBMs. In fact, North Korea reveled more new military hardware during that parade than any other in recent history. Putting so much hardware—including missiles—on display means that North Korea, despite the impact of recent sanctions, has yet to alter its overall strategic course and may begin working to test some of the strategic systems displayed during the parade.

To keep North Korea from pursuing a more aggressive path, the Biden administration must work to signal its intent to engage with Pyongyang. Unlike the personalized diplomacy of the Trump administration, Biden would be better served by working with allies and, in the case of China, competitors in producing a plan to put North Korea on the path to denuclearization. One possibility is working with South Korea and China to coordinate interests, resources, and access to craft a viable positive sanctions regime meant to provide material incentives to the Kim regime to pursue denuclearization.

South Korea

The Biden administration must also repair the critical United States-Republic of Korea (US-ROK) alliance damaged by the previous administration. Two critical issues will loom large in this endeavor: the status of a defense cost sharing agreement and working to repair relations between South Korea and Japan.

The first area of focus for the new administration should be reestablishing a defense cost sharing agreement. Doing so will require two key steps. First, the Biden administration must work to establish a multi-year cost sharing agreement which splits the cost of stationing American troops in South Korea reasonably. Such agreements have been a staple of the ROK-US alliance since 1991 and have featured regular increases to South Korean contributions over the past decades. Second, the Biden administration must work to show, as Andrew Jeong argued, how the United States is to spend the money provided by Korea. A clearly outlined multi-year agreement will provide stability in the alliance and advance American security interests in the region.

Another key area where the United States can show a commitment to South Korea is working to  improve relations between Japan and Korea. Repairing this relationship will require adept diplomacy by the Biden administration as the President inherited a South Korea-Japan relationship fraught with tension. Diplomatically, the Biden administration must be assertive in bringing the two nations together, but also must ensure that any agreement is agreed upon by South Korea and Japan; in short, the United States must act as a mediator not a participant in any negotiations meant to resolve bi-lateral issues. Also, the Biden administration can work to strengthen security cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Bringing together these two allies can make deterring North Korea, as well as maintaining regional stability, easier for all parties.

By working to repair the alliance with South Korea, the Biden administration can craft policy which strengthens regional cooperation and stability, as well as bring two critical American allies closer together.

The Biden administration is off to a good start by pledging to work with South Korea in shaping Washington’s policy toward North Korea. However, the Biden administration must push further and engage even more regional actors if they wish to craft an effective Korea policy. Pursuing a new approach to denuclearization and repairing ties with South Korea and Japan will ensure that the Biden administration can promote regional stability, cooperation, and integration.

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Benjamin Zimmer

Benjamin is a Master of International Affairs student at The Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University where he focuses on East Asia and intelligence. He is the creator of The Korea Page: News and Analysis from the Korean Peninsula. His research interests include North Korean politics, the North Korea-United States relationship, and nuclear proliferation. His writings have appeared in The Peninsula Report, Foreign Policy Press, and The Sphere. He can be found on twitter at @bzimmer8.

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