Trump and Biden’s race to the White House leaves future of inter-Korean diplomacy up in the air

By James Moules

THE future character of inter-Korean relations could hinge on the results of the US and South Korean presidential elections, experts have told Redaction Politics.

In 2018, Donald Trump became the first US President to meet with a North Korean leader at a summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

The meeting came following a fierce exchange of rhetoric between the two leaders which many feared would lead the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

Trump famously warned that North Korea would suffer “fire and fury” if it did not cease its threats to the USA.

Yet in an apparent move towards détente, Kim met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in April 2018 at the border between the two Koreas.

This was followed two months later by the Trump-Kim summit.

But experts say that the nature of relations between the South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK), North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) and the USA will depend on forthcoming elections.

Redaction Politics spoke to Jim Hoare of SOAS and Chatham House – who was the first British diplomatic representative to North Korea.

He said: “There is no way of knowing about the future of inter-Korean relations. Much depends on what happens in the US elections and that seems up in the air at the moment.

“South Korean President Moon will try to get back into contact with the North but Kim Jong-un seems to have decided that the ROK cannot do anything to shift the US position on how to handle the nuclear issue or on the lifting of sanctions, so is reluctant to give Moon any advantages.

“Moon is also running out of time.”

Moon Jae-in assumed the office of President of South Korea in May 2017 – a role which can only be held for a single five year term.

North Korea’s nuclear programme

North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon on October 3, 2006 – since then it has conducted five more tests, three of which took place under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

These have included tests for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

At their meeting in Singapore, Trump and Kim signed a declaration committing to denuclearisation – but at the start of this year, Kim announced an end to his nation’s freeze of nuclear tests.

But Dr Hoare told Redaction that military escalation on the Korean peninsula remains unlikely.

He said: “No doubt the North will continue testing short-range missiles but the South has learnt to live with that and it does not really increase the threat very much.

“Both sides have learnt that military escalation is a dangerous tactic and tend to draw back before things get out of hand.”

Dr Gabor Sebo, postdoctoral researcher and visiting scholar at the Universtiy of Edinburgh, told Redaction Politics: “Military escalation is totally irrealistic, in my opinion. None of the two sides will take the risk for any ‘serious’ military actions but only small firearms appeared recently. 

“A military escalation is not in the interests of any of the two sides. Therefore, they are careful not to step over the thin red line.”

The Korean War broke out 70 years ago, and fighting ceased in 1953 after three years of bloody conflict.

It was fought between the NATO-backed forces of Syngman Rhee and the Sino-Soviet supported Kim Il-sung (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather). It ended in stalemate and the division of the Korean peninsula, but tensions have continued for decades.

Thousands of US troops remain stationed in South Korea to this day.

How might the election change things?

American voters are set to go to the polls to choose their next president on November 3 – an election which could alter US policy towards the Korea Peninsula.

Dr Hoare said: “If Trump is re-elected, he may well want to continue his links with Kim Jong-un.

“He might also reduce or even pull out US troops from the ROK, something the DPRK has long campaigned for, if he continues to think that they are only there for the defence of the ROK and the latter does not pay enough for them – he ignores the wider issue that they are there because they help defend the US. 

“He might also decide to reject the Bolton approach – just as he has rejected Bolton – of an all or nothing approach to denuclearisation, and accept that there will have to be some element of give and take to get things moving again.

“He has already given away the strong card that was a meeting between a US president and the DPRK leader, so will have to find something else.

“If Biden is elected, he is more likely to listen to advisers but there are two Democrat traditions concerning the DPRK – one is hostility or indifference, the other, was the Clinton approach which, eventually, was engagement.”

President Moon of South Korea’s term will end in 2022. Representing the liberal Democratic Party, he won the presidency in 2017 after the impeachment of the conservative Saenuri Party’s Park Geun-hye.

Moon has made visible steps towards amicable diplomacy with the DPRK, but his successor in 2022 could reshape future relations.

Dr Sojin Lim, Co-Director of the International Institute of Korean Studies of the University of Central Lancashire, told Redaction Politics: “If the US election goes with Biden, US will go back to the traditional diplomacy style, and maybe it is worth looking back what happened during Obama administration.

“If the South Korea election goes with the current progressive-liberal party, whoever the nominee is, current peace and unification mode will probably stay, but if it goes with a conservative party, the atmosphere will change.”

Dr Hoare added: “It is far too early to make any predictions about the ROK presidential elections.

“Moon cannot stand again but there is no obvious successor from his party at the moment.

“Neither is it clear who might be the opposition’s candidate. But at least since 1971, every ROK president has talked – and sometimes acted – about having better  relations with the DPRK.” 

Featured Image: Pixabay

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