The Trump era is ending and not a moment too soon. Donald J. Trump tarnished the US image abroad, mishandled the pandemic, and incited an insurrection. On his way out the door, Trump obstructed the peaceful transfer of power and impeded a new administration’s foreign policy.
America’s friends should welcome the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as the 46th president of the United States at noon on January 20th. The return to a smart, civil, and can-do approach to world affairs is crucial for managing the twenty-first century’s daunting challenges. Democratic Party control of the Congress should ease the transition and expedite confirmation of senior political appointees. The US government will soon return to full strength.
But we should harbor no illusions about the difficulties that lay ahead. Biden knows that his determination to work with allies on various challenges does not mean the world will mobilize around an American agenda. Severe problems defy quick fixes. Even with ample political will to work with allies and within multilateral institutions, progress will take time and patience.
Take the containment of the coronavirus, Biden’s highest priority. The pandemic is ripe for greater bilateral and international cooperation. —and Biden is sure to do both. While the Trump administration accelerated the development of a vaccine, it failed to create a robust national plan for inoculating the American people. Consequently, vaccinating the population and repairing the US economy will happen gradually and within a damaged domestic polity. While China touts a ‘Health Silk Road,’ President Biden inherits a system ill-equipped to help others around the globe. Yet the United States should work with South Korea and others to address global dimensions of COVID-19 and its aftermath.
Similar pitfalls await the Biden administration as it embraces allies. Goodwill is abundant in the ‘ironclad’ ROK-U.S. alliance, whose primary mission remains dealing with the DPRK. And Biden will move swiftly to resolve burden-sharing disputes. But strengthening security coordination among South Korea, Japan, and the United States will remain a delicate process. Recent court rulings on ‘comfort women’ are apt to inflame longstanding tensions, and Washington is as likely to be blamed as admired for trying to advance trilateral cooperation.
Meanwhile, North Korea will remain an intractable challenge. Even if Kim Jong Un employs a charm offensive, as he intimated at the Eighth Party Congress—the cost of establishing “full scale” relations is likely to be exorbitant. His demands will outstrip his concessions. Throwing benefits at Pyongyang—such as humanitarian and health assistance, sanctions relief, scaled-back military drills, or an end-of-war declaration—will not be reciprocated in significant ways. We could spend years paying off the North Korean regime in exchange for trying to lock down the Yongbyon nuclear facility, even as we fail to prevent the DPRK from fielding a Pakistan-sized nuclear arsenal.
After decades of keeping the peace on the peninsula, South Korea and the United States must recognize that North Korea’s burgeoning ICBM capability cannot be eliminated without a change in Pyongyang’s mindset. Absent significant external pressure from all neighboring states, letting Kim Jong Un think that Seoul and Washington are bent on peace at any cost will only encourage North Korea to seek maximalist demands. He may revert to provocation and brinkmanship to underscore the stakes and his determination in the coming year. All is not lost, however. We can coexist with North Korea and seek a new political relationship, even a durable peace in the long term, but do not expect this to happen on either President Moon Jae-in’s or even President Biden’s watch.
The protracted nature of the pandemic and dealing with North Korea highlight the need for the ROK-US alliance to look ahead and strive to be more than a local guarantor of peace. Americans and South Koreans should expand their commitment to dealing with frontier issues and shaping global rules and institutions. An ambitious and comprehensive vision for a complex networked alliance is outlined by Chun Chaesung, Scott Snyder, Lee Sang-hyun, and me in a new East Asia Institute report.
Addressing old challenges and exploring new opportunities will demand that Seoul and Washington pivot from their recent turns inward. As a new US administration reengages the international community, the South Korean government needs to think beyond intra-Korean relations. For instance, President Biden will likely convene a summit for democracy. Such a conclave of like-minded countries could rally around rules and reforms to safeguard freedom, resist big-power coercion, and reinforce the rule of law.
But Presidents Biden and Moon should widen the aperture of cooperation and harness scientific know-how on behalf of humanity. From health care to climate change and cyberspace to outer space, the challenges of new frontiers demand joint ROK-US approaches. How can we realize the benefits and minimize the risks of emerging technologies such as bioengineering, AI, the Internet of Things, and 3D manufacturing? While not neglecting the business of deterrence and peace on the peninsula, officials in both countries should strive to build a forward-looking knowledge alliance, too.
America’s return to sanity does not mean the end of power politics, autocrats, or pandemics. But we should celebrate when our leaders use reason to draw us together. Let the Biden era—and a new chapter in ROK-US relations—begin.
This essay was originally published in Korean for DongA Ilbo