Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Security

US Presidential Elections 2020: The Future of the ROK-US Alliance

The upcoming U.S. presidential election will have significant consequences for the trajectory of South Korea-U.S. relations.

By Jihoon Yu, Jiyoon Kim, and Erik French for
US Presidential Elections 2020: The Future of the ROK-US Alliance
Credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

As the U.S. presidential election approaches, the United States’ alliance with South Korea is under a considerable amount of strain. The two longstanding allies continue to feud over the Trump administration’s demand for a massive increase in South Korea’s host nation support for U.S. forces. President Donald Trump has personally disparaged South Korea and continues to express general skepticism about the value of U.S. alliance commitments. The Trump administration’s recent decision to relocate troops previously stationed in Germany has only reinforced growing anxiety in Seoul about the United States’ reliability as a partner. Meanwhile, the Moon and Trump administrations have engaged North Korea separately rather than in unison and remain at odds over sanctions relief. Finally, the two states disagree on how best to manage China’s rise. While the Trump administration has adopted a competitive approach to China in both the security and economic realms, South Korea has long sought to maintain a positive relationship with Beijing given its significant economic ties with China.

The upcoming U.S. presidential election will have significant consequences for the trajectory of South Korea-U.S. relations. A number of these tensions will likely dissipate if the Democratic Party candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, wins the election. Others, however, particularly concerning allied policy toward North Korea and China, are likely to endure under a Biden administration.

It seems likely that a Biden administration would abandon the Trump administration’s extensive requirements for increases in South Korea’s host nation support. Throughout the campaign, Biden has argued that Trump’s strategy has “alienated us from the very democratic allies we need most.” Jung H. Pak, one of Biden’s most influential advisers on Asian affairs, similarly suggests that Trump’s push for increases in host nation support creates fissures in the alliance, which Beijing may seek to exploit.

More broadly, a Biden administration would probably seek to reinforce the ROK-U.S. alliance. Biden and his advisers have repeatedly condemned Trump’s frequent criticism of U.S. allies. The Democratic candidate stresses that “reinvesting in our treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea” would be a top priority for his administration. Indeed, an upgraded ROK-U.S. alliance would fit well with the Biden campaign’s heavy emphasis on maintaining the liberal international order through cooperation with fellow democracies.

Interestingly, though, a Biden win might also widen the gap between the United States’ and South Korea’s policies toward North Korea. Biden has criticized the Trump administration’s diplomatic outreach toward Pyongyang while emphasizing that his administration will not meet with North Korean officials without preconditions. Simultaneously, Biden’s proposed foreign policy includes a heavy focus on “advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” Such a vision would seem to preclude mending ties with a regime Biden has described as “murderous,” “brutal,” and “ruthless.” Yet this approach would put the United States at odds with the current Moon administration. Seoul continues to pursue rapprochement with North Korea, calling for greater inter-Korean solidarity and pushing for international sanctions relief. These divergent approaches could create considerable strain for the ROK-U.S. alliance, similar to the tensions between the Bush and Roh administrations in the 2000s.

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Similarly, a Biden win is unlikely to bridge the widening gap between the two allies’ strategies toward China. As many experts and scholars have emphasized, significant structural factors, including shifting relative power and divergent political values, play a critical role in driving U.S.-China competition. These structural conditions may very well push the United States and China toward mutual hostility regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. Furthermore, the Biden campaign has echoed the Trump administration in stating that the U.S. must “get tough with China.” True, Biden’s proposed strategy for rivalry with China is significantly different from Trump’s. One of Biden’s preeminent Asia policy advisors, Ely Ratner, argues that the United States must make greater use of alliances, multilateralism, and international institutions in confronting China. Nevertheless, Biden will likely continue to pursue a competitive strategy toward Beijing, creating tension with a South Korean administration determined to avoid entanglement in U.S.-China rivalry. Indeed, given Biden’s emphasis on breaking with Trump’s unilateralism and his vision of “a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior,” Seoul may face even more pressure than in the past to join with Washington in countering a more assertive China.

Finally, we expect a Biden administration to push South Korea to do more to mend ties with the United States’ other key Northeast Asian ally, Japan. South Korea and Japan continue to feud over trade, maritime territory, and history; Abe Shinzo’s replacement by Suga Yoshihide as Japanese prime minister is unlikely to change this. But a Biden administration, with its stated preference for employing multilateralism in addressing both North Korea and China, will have little patience for these disagreements. This will likely lead to some initial tension in the South Korea-U.S. relationship.

The upcoming elections will matter greatly for the future of the ROK-U.S. alliance. A Trump victory will likely see the continuation of many of the same disputes and disagreements that have characterized the partnership for the last four years. Indeed, if Trump is reelected he may feel emboldened to push more aggressively for broader changes to the ROK-U.S. alliance, potentially even threatening to withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula. By contrast, a Biden victory may help patch up a number of these disputes but will likely exacerbate others. Either way, the allies will need to carefully navigate these disagreements in order to maintain their alliance as the linchpin of regional security. Neither state stands to benefit from a weakening of this mutually beneficial partnership.

Jihoon Yu is a lieutenant commander in the ROK Navy working on naval strategy and force development at the ROK Navy HQ. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from Syracuse University.

Jiyoon Kim is an acclaimed political analyst specializing in election and public opinion analysis and U.S. politics. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT.

Erik French is an assistant professor and director of the International Studies program at the State University of New York at Brockport. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from Syracuse University.