Confronting North Korean and Chinese Aggression Requires It
For the first time in 20 years, the United States and South Korea both have left-of-center presidents. The pairing of President Joe Biden and President Moon Jae-in might seem at first blush to forecast a stronger alliance, especially after President Donald Trump’s abrasive leadership style cast doubt on the bedrock of Washington’s relationship with Seoul: mutual respect and the United States’ commitment to South Korea’s security. But there are fissures in the U.S.–South Korean alliance that will outlast Trump.
In contrast to their conservative counterparts, the progressives in Moon’s government wish to maintain a significant degree of autonomy from big powers (notably the United States and Japan). They are also sympathetic toward North Korea and China. Both impulses portend friction with the incoming Biden administration, which seeks to rally a coalition of democracies to counter China and is inclined to pursue a tougher policy toward Pyongyang than Moon. South Korea under Moon will be Biden’s linchpin ally in the Indo-Pacific, but at the same time it could be the weakest link in the planned democratic coalition. Seoul will also seek to reject additional international sanctions against the North, initiate a speedy peace process, and overlook Pyongyang’s human rights violations—all of which could rankle Washington.