By Kim Jongho
In past US presidential elections, the foreign policy platforms were somewhat different due to the “bipartisan approach” that prioritized national interests. In this presidential election, however, President Trump’s America First policy is very different from Biden’s. President Trump is expected to move away from the position of the Republican Party, which has traditionally placed importance on alliances, and will continue to maintain a neo-classical tendency. Biden, on the other hand, is focused on restoring alliances and regaining the US’s leadership role in a liberal international order. As a result, the two candidates are showing differences in almost all areas of diplomacy, including climate change, the role of international organizations such the World Trade Organization (WTO), and policies toward China and the Korean Peninsula. Fundamentally, there is a difference in perspective on whether the US should reinforce its role as a world leader again.
President Trump will put more pressure on China if he is re-elected. As President Trump’s COVID-19 infection was confirmed, the cynical attitude of Chinese authorities and state media further fueled his hardline stance toward China. On the other hand, if Biden is elected, competition between the US and China is expected to ease somewhat. Biden criticizes China’s trade practices and worries over its challenges to US leadership, but the significant difference is that he emphasizes cooperation with existing international norms and allies as a countermeasure.
In relation to international organizations, the two candidates are also showing differences. Trump distrusts global warming itself and promises continued support for traditional energy sources such as oil and coal. Biden emphasizes the seriousness of climate change and says he would return to the Paris Agreement, from which Trump withdrew. Regarding the WTO, Trump opposes the appointment of a member of the Appellate Body, saying the organization is not functioning properly. Biden, on the other hand, focuses on reforming international organizations, evaluating the WTO’s contribution to international norms.
Trump and Biden also have different positions on the Korean Peninsula. Regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, Trump is continuing a top-down method of resolving tension through a relationship between leaders, and suggests the possibility of resuming dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He claims that there would have already been a war on the Korean peninsula if not for him, and says he will achieve the denuclearization of North Korea through dialogue with Kim.
On the other hand, Biden criticizes Trump’s top-down approach, which he claims has not achieved North Korean denuclearization and has only increased North Korea’s diplomatic isolation. He prefers a bottom-up method in which summit meetings are held only when working-level discussions show results. Of course, this does not mean that Trump will give way to North Korea, nor does it mean that Biden will cease dialogue with North Korea.
North Korea appears to be supporting Trump, as the top-down method is also preferred by Kim Jong-un. If one looks at the conversation held with First Vice President Kim Yeo-jeong on July 10, it is clear he hopes to maintain a lasting relationship with President Trump. Accordingly, it is expected that the US-North Korea dialogue will resume early if a second Trump administration begins. Of course, since North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons easily, it will take a considerable amount of time to achieve concrete results, but the resumption of dialogue will play a positive role in preventing North Korea’s strategic provocations, and the possibility of creating new tensions on the Korean peninsula is likely to decrease.
If Biden is elected, North Korea will feel the need to increase its value. As a result, it may attempt to pressure the Biden administration by firing new intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launched ballistic missiles. In this process, there is a high possibility of creating tension on the Korean Peninsula. Even if North Korea refrains from provocation and negotiates, it will take considerable time to get from working-level talks to summit meetings.
There is also substantial difference in how the two candidates are viewing Republic of Korea-US relations. Trump insists that allies must pay a reasonable price for the presence of the US military. If his re-election is successful, it is expected that the “Korea-US Defense Expenses Contribution Special Agreement (SMA)” will exert intense pressure. Significant pressure will also be put on US participation in the Chinese policy of the Quad, or the exclusion of Chinese companies from the global supply network. The issue of tariffs on Korean products exported to the US is also expected to be raised again. Biden, too, will probably face considerable tension with South Korea in order to advance the interests of the United States, but the intensity of the pressure is expected to ease compared to the Trump administration, as he has criticized Trump’s excessive pressure on US allies.
The upcoming US presidential election is a major issue that will have a great impact, not only on US-Korea relations over the next four years, but also inter-Korean relations, Korea-China relations, and Korea-Japan relations. The Moon Jae-in administration is too quick to express opposition to the US’s regional strategy. While expressing a positive position on China’s regional strategy of “One Belt and One Road” (land and sea Silk Road), it has too easily denied the regional strategy of the US, a longtime ally. No matter who is elected US President, the Korean government should expand the foundation for sustainable cooperation with the United States.
Professor Kim Jongho is currently a professor at the Department of Law, Police, and Public Administration at Hoseo University in Korea. He received bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from SungKyunKwan law schools in Korea, and master’s and doctoral degrees from three law schools in the United States. He studies how business and financial institutions affect people’s lives, and he is also studying the impact of international transactions on regional security and economy. He advises the Korean government and local governments, and participates in various government-affiliated committees. He is also chairs various academic organizations and is editor of several journals.