Biden's Korea Policy Brings No New Ideas, Experts Say

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October 30, 2020

Defense experts panned presidential candidate Joe Biden's op-ed in a South Korean newspaper that sought to lay out his foreign policy vision to a key ally.

Titled "Hope for Our Better Future," the article ran through a series of policy issues, from the coronavirus pandemic to tactics for denuclearizing North Korea. Some national security experts said the Democrat demonstrated little strategic thinking. While Biden took aim at President Donald Trump, he failed to distinguish the Biden ticket's position on the Koreas from the Trump administration's actions in the region, according to Heritage Foundation vice president James Carafano.

"I saw it as an utter nothingburger," Carafano told the Washington Free Beacon. "Basically, it was an admission that there's nothing new to offer."

The piece promised a new era of "principled diplomacy" for East Asia, where a Biden administration would reaffirm the alliance between Seoul and Washington. Biden made these assurances in contrast with what he described as the Trump administration "extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops."

"Words matter—and a president's words matter even more," Biden wrote.

"As president, I'll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops. I'll engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula," Biden said.

The Trump administration did weigh a proposal to reduce the 28,500-strong U.S. troop presence in South Korea in July. Trump officials cited high costs and a lack of cooperation with allied countries as a primary motivator for this consideration. But there has not yet been definitive action taken on American troop presence in South Korea.

The proposal was taken seriously in Seoul. A September report indicated that South Korea may spend $44.7 billion on defense in 2021, a 5.5 percent increase from 2020's defense budget. The budget focuses on developing capacities for security operations along South Korea's borders, often a task previously underwritten by American forces.

Carafano said that Biden's overtures to South Korea will amount to very little by way of policy change. 

"So many of these intractable issues—whether it's North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, or transatlantic relations—if you could change them with different words, I think somebody would have thought of that by now," Carafano said. "The reaffirmation of the alliance really doesn't change North Korea's behavior in any way."

The Trump administration, however, has made serious efforts to reorient North Korea's behavior internationally. A new sanctions regime under the Republican administration has brought Pyongyang's already flailing economy to a screeching halt, with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un even telling his people in August that his economic planning has failed.

"This administration has really cranked down on sanctions," Carafano said. "This is the quietest they've ever been in four years."

Despite communicating critiques of the president to a foreign audience, American Enterprise Institute scholar Zack Cooper said Biden's view of Korean relations is little different from that of Trump's national security team.

"The only line in the op-ed that really went after Trump was the critique of the focus on burden sharing costs, which is a view shared by most Koreans (and American experts as well), so I don't think this will undermine efforts with Korea," Cooper said. "Seoul was already delaying these negotiations in the hopes of getting a more cooperative American leader post-election, so that is unlikely to change."