|Korean Ambassador to U.S. Lee Soo-hyuck attends the inauguration ceremony of U.S. President Joe Biden, Thursday. / From Lee Soo-hyuck's Facebook|
By Do Je-hae
U.S. President Joe Biden's inaugural speech Thursday carried a brief but noteworthy message for allies who were weary of his predecessor Donald Trump's precipitous "America first" policy and questioned the health of the country's global leadership.
"My message to those beyond our borders. America has been tested and we've come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's challenges. And we'll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example," Biden said.
The new U.S. leader also said that his country will be a "strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security."
Concerns were on the rise about the deteriorating Korea-U.S. alliance under the previous Trump administration over some major hurdles in bilateral relations, such as Trump's demands of huge increases in Korea's contribution to the cost of maintaining the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). The former U.S. leader also put some Koreans on edge by threatening to reduce the U.S. military presence in the country and actually taking steps to cut troops in Germany.
President Biden's attention to "repairing alliances" has raised hopes that things between the two countries will be different under the new U.S. leader, who has a wealth of experience in dealing with foreign affairs as vice president in the Barack Obama administration as well as his time as the chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Prospects are rising that undoing some of the harms of former U.S. President Trump, who as a businessman had little experience in diplomacy before his unexpected arrival at the White House, will be among the primary tasks of the new U.S. leader. These will include bilateral as well as multilateral issues, according to some experts.
"I think that it's no secret that Trump damaged the alliances with South Korea and Japan as well as NATO. I think that Biden will consult more with allies in foreign policy matters," Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, told The Korea Times.
"In the case of South Korea, I think that this will involve reaching an agreement on Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations fairly quickly, taking South Korea's views on North Korea into consideration even if Seoul's and Washington's positions are different, cooperation in multilateral issues such as climate change or trade, and trying to get the Moon Jae-in government on board his administration's position on China. I would also expect Biden to support South Korea becoming part of an expanded G7 or similar forum, and, more generally, supporting a more vocal Seoul in international relations," added Pardo, who also serves as associate professor of international relations at King's College London
Some experts underlined that Korea was probably one of the countries on Biden's mind when he mentioned the improving alliances.
"The need to restore confidence covers a wide spectrum of countries and alliances, none more difficult than Korea," Donald Kirk, a columnist on Korean Peninsula affairs, told The Korea Times. "Biden had to have South Korea in mind when he spoke of repairing alliances. As many Koreans are aware, Biden must restore Korean confidence in the U.S.-ROK alliance, damaged by Trump's demands for a vast increase in the South Korean contribution. One immediate priority is to come to terms on cost-sharing for U.S. forces and bases in the country. With that problem resolved, the Biden team can move on to the overwhelming problem of North Korea."
Biden is expected to face trade issues that will also have repercussions for Korea. "Biden should also look into the possibilities of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump refused to join," Kirk added.
Challenges of closer alliance
Key Korean officials have highly assessed Biden's pledge to prioritize allies. "It was particularly impressive that President Biden emphasized the importance of unity, democracy and alliance," Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Lee Soo-hyuck said on Facebook after attending the inauguration ceremony for President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
But other analysts underlined that Korea needs to pay attention to the challenges arising from Biden's calls for stronger alliances, such as the possibility of extracting increasing contributions from Korea for the Indo-Pacific strategy. Biden is also expected to renew attention to Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation, which presents a challenge for Korea amid the escalating row over history and trade with Japan.
"Biden's priority of repairing U.S. alliances presents opportunities and challenges for Seoul. Gone are the days when Koreans will hear about changes in American policy by tweet. But higher expectations for consultation and coordination will be a two-way street," Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told The Korea Times.
"Maintaining deterrence with defense exercises and implementing sanctions on North Korea will be higher on the agenda than creative diplomacy with Pyongyang. A tighter alliance network will involve stronger encouragement that South Korea and Japan improve relations. The Biden administration may be more reasonable about trade issues and defense cost-sharing, but negotiations still won't be easy. A closer alliance will also mean increasing contributions to Indo-Pacific security and defending democratic values without fear of offending Beijing."
The Korean government has seen the power transition in the U.S. as an occasion to improve bilateral relations and tackle the impasse on the Korean Peninsula issue. With this in mind, President Moon has named his former national security adviser Chung Eui-yong as foreign minister this week. Chung is a seasoned North Korea negotiator who met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un twice as a presidential envoy.