JoongAng-CSIS forum warns that North may provoke Biden
Washington needs to pursue “creative engagement” to prepare for any provocation from North Korea early in the incoming Joe Biden administration, said Rep. Joaquin Castro, vice chair of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, speaking in a forum Tuesday.
“The Kim regime has usually greeted new American presidents with major provocations early in their term,” said Castro, a Democrat from Texas, in his keynote address to the 2020 JoongAng Ilbo-CSIS Forum.
“We must prepare for that unprovoked escalation to occur with the incoming Biden administration. This would require strengthening our alliance with South Korea but also a creative engagement with North Korea and the rest of the world.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based foreign policy think tank, and the Korea Peace Foundation held the annual forum, which marks its 10th anniversary, virtually for the first time.
During the potentially pivotal transition between U.S. administrations, current and former officials and renowned scholars from Korea and the United States addressed the forum’s overarching theme of "Morning in America: The ROK-U.S. Alliance After the Election.”
The Korean panelists came together at JTBC’s Ilsan studio in Goyang, Gyeonggi, while the American speakers joined via videoconference. The forum was streamed live over YouTube and Facebook.
President-elect Joe Biden “faces a North Korean nuclear program that is far more developed than it was four years ago,” Castro pointed out in his speech, noting that Washington could follow the model of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Jcpoa), in dealing with Pyongyang.
Castro said that the North Korean nuclear and missile programs should be seen as an “arms control challenge” and that the United States should be “prepared to work towards a strategic, step-by-step process to get our ultimate goal.”
He continued, “This could begin with a verifiable freeze in North Korea’s fissile material and missile production, followed by a gradual denuclearization process. Although Iran and North Korea are at very different stages with their nuclear programs, the Jcpoa model can offer some lessons for our dealings with North Korea.”
While Castro noted that he is not “inherently against holding leadership summits to address difficult issues,” he said that U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach to Pyongyang suffered from minimal groundwork and were photo-ops rather than summits geared toward achieving results.
Castro added that he is “confident” that Biden will bring a “serious, experienced approach to this issue as well as a team of first-class experts to help tackle it.”
He also stressed that he is “optimistic” about the “endurance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance” under a Biden government, a turnaround from Trump, who didn’t appear to “value our longstanding alliances as a president of the United States should have.”
Castro said, “In light of the growing threat from North Korea, it’s more important than ever for our military alliance to be ironclad. Unfortunately, President Trump used America’s alliance with South Korea as a money-making enterprise. He believes American soldiers are in South Korea to act as mercenaries.”
Consequently, he said, Seoul and Washington’s defense cost-sharing deal expired at the end of last year, and the two sides have struggled to strike a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA).
However, Castro noted that President-elect Biden “recognizes that having a military presence in South Korea is essential to protect U.S. interests.”
On Sino-U.S. rivalry, Castro said, “The U.S. will continue to make good faith efforts to cooperate with the Chinese government wherever we can, including global health and threats like climate change. Still, the United States and our allies must stand up for our values and interests when it comes to China.”
Referring to China’s tactics of pressuring smaller countries in the region, he added, “The United States stands with its allies, and together, we must use our collective strength to deter the Chinese government from using its economic power to bully other countries.”
Korean and U.S. experts, including renowned American national security analyst Graham Allison, a Douglas Dillon professor of government at Harvard University, took part in three sessions on the alliance after the U.S. election; the implications of the U.S.-China competition; and restoring cooperation between the Republic of Korea (ROK), the United States and Japan.
“The last four years were confusing because President Trump gave the impression that we were doing a favor to Korea by having our troops there,” said John Hamre, the president and CEO of CSIS in welcoming remarks. “That was wrong. We weren’t rewarding Korea by having troops in Korea. We were helping ourselves because we are deep partners with Korea. Our whole goal is to ensure that there is democracy and freedom on the Eurasian continent, and Korea is the great champion of that.”
He continued, “We’re not giving you anything. This isn’t a tributary relationship and it’s not a mercenary relationship. We are partners because it’s in our mutual interest.”
Hamre said he supports the reunification of the Korean Peninsula to prevent North Korea from becoming “a tributary state of China” and also supports the “campaign to try to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula,” calling for “sensible policies” to achieve that.
Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of JoongAng Holdings and the Korea Peace Foundation, said in his opening remarks that South Korea needs to “actively engage in President-elect Biden’s foreign policy plan to build strong democratic alliances” and also “deepen the U.S. understanding of the geopolitical circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.”
He added that the United States should take into account the “geopolitical circumstances” of South Korea and that “Korean Peninsula issues should therefore be considered separately from the context of U.S.-China competition.”
Hong added that the impasse in Seoul-Tokyo relations should be “resolved pre-emptively.”
“In order to convince the new U.S. administration of these conditions surrounding Korea, we need to present the big picture for future foreign and security policy,” said Hong. “The key is to strengthen the major pillars of the alliance including democracy, multilateralism, market economy, openness and transparency for stronger ROK-U.S. ties. Inter-Korean relations must proceed forward in water-tight cooperation with the United States on the premise of North Korea’s complete denuclearization.”
Victor Cha, a CSIS senior adviser and Korea chair, said in the first session on the alliance after the election, “Going forward I think that President Biden will do a great deal to reinvigorate or rejuvenate the U.S.-Korea alliance,” and that he will “see alliances like Korea as power assets, not power liabilities” that enhance and extend U.S. power.
Cha expects a Biden administration to “move away from having the alliance be completely obstructed by negotiations over how much to pay for U.S. Forces in Korea,” which is “not a negotiation that should occupy the entire time of our alliance managers.”
Sue Mi Terry, a CSIS senior fellow and Korea chair, like Cha, expects a “reasonable resolution” to the SMA negotiations next year.
On the new U.S. administration’s policy on North Korea, she pointed out that while Biden is “unlikely to rush into a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” he is seen to be “open to a step-by-step approach” and an interim deal.
She noted that Tony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state nominee, said that the best model to follow in dealing with North Korea is the Jcpoa with Iran.
However, she said that the Biden administration’s “first and foremost priority would be on deterrence,” and warned that as Washington and Seoul struggle to get on the same page on Pyongyang policy, North Korea could revert to provocations in the coming months.
She continued, “Our immediate priority should be preventing the North from going down that path,” which in turn could push Washington to adopt a more hard-line policy on North Korea.
Other panelists in the first session included former Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, who stressed that the Biden administration’s first open message to North Korea “should be based on principles,” while Ahn Ho-young, a former Korean Ambassador to the United States, stressed the need to “rebuild trust” between the two countries to overcome existing paradoxes.
In the second session addressing U.S.-China competition, Harvard Prof. Allison said, “This is not going to be the third term of the Obama administration,” noting that China’s place in the world has changed since the Barack Obama presidency, and that Biden now will be the “decider.”
He added Biden’s presidency also is not going to be the second term of the Trump administration.
He introduced the “Five Rs” on Biden’s approach to China that mark a change from the previous administration: Restoration of normal foreign policy practices; Reversal of Trump's harmful initiatives; Review of Trump's 159 accomplishments in dealing with China interests; Recognition that China is not just a great power but a classic Thucydidean rival; and Realism about the inescapable fact that the United States and China live on a small globe where they each face existential threats neither can defeat by itself. This includes MAD, or a mutually assured destruction, dating from the Cold War era, but also a climate version of MAD.
Allison said that if the United States and China are going to be “ruthless rivals,” the question is, can they also “be intense partners at least to the extent necessary to prevent them getting dragged into war,” and if they can cooperate “sufficiently to constrain greenhouse gas emissions so that everyone can live in a climate that has not been so severely disrupted.”
He continued, “I’m hopeful with President Biden that if any American president could do that, I think this one can.”
Bonnie Glaser, a CSIS senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project, agreed that U.S.-China strategic competition will endure.
She, however, noted a few changes under a Biden presidency, such as all agencies of the U.S. government focusing on reinvigorating the United States rather than confronting China, closely working with allies and partners to protect shared interests and re-engaging with multilateral organizations.
Glaser said there will be “a change in tone,” and that the United States will seek to cooperate with China where interests converge, such as climate change, global health and pandemics. She said North Korea is another “potential area of cooperation, though not a priority, although provocations by Pyongyang can push it to the front of the agenda.”
Shin Jung-seung, a former Korean ambassador to China, addressed the possibility of Washington pushing Seoul to join an expanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, involving U.S. regional allies Australia, Japan and India, which could put Korea in an awkward position.
He said that the “geopolitical situation in South Korea is different from Japan and Australia, noting its proximity to China and the division of the Korean Peninsula, adding, “in order to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula, Korea needs to work with China.” He noted that South Korea has to “promote the alliance with the United States and strengthen economic cooperation with China.”
Former Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan, a professor emeritus of Seoul National University, also noted Seoul’s geopolitical situation and said that U.S. policy on the alliance “shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all” and should be “customized” for South Korea, actively supporting the role Seoul plays on the peninsula in security cooperation.
In the final session on “Restoring ROK-U.S.-Japan Cooperation,” experts stressed the need to restore tense bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo, plagued by longstanding historical issues, and Washington’s role to facilitate this. Panelists included Caroline Kennedy, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan; Michael Green, CSIS senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair; former Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan; and former Korean ambassador to Russia Wi Sung-lac.
“Japan and Korea are two of the United States’ most important allies,” said Kennedy. “The relationship between them is vitally important to the United States. I know that relations right now are extremely difficult but I also know that they can improve, and I saw that happen during my time in Japan.”
Kennedy said that former Vice President Biden during this time “felt very strongly that the U.S. role was to support their efforts to build a stronger relationship, not to dictate or tell them what they do.”
She added, “It would be in Korea’s interest to think about what steps they can initiate to start this process of improving relations. I know that the United States will support that effort wholeheartedly. In addition to Vice President Biden’s personal involvement, he spent a lot of time working on Asian issues when President Obama was working on other matters.”
The panelists agreed that the inauguration of a new prime minister in Japan and a new U.S. president is a very important moment to improve Seoul-Tokyo relations, and Kennedy said this was a “very important chance for something positive to happen and the United States will support that and work hard with our allies.”
Green noted, “When Japan and Korea are not aligned, both lose leverage in the United States.”
If both Seoul and Tokyo reach out to Washington jointly on an issue, he said “we have to listen,” calling this a “very powerful instrument.”
He also noted that a strong trilateral alliance has more leverage to deal with North Korea diplomatically and may pressure China to cooperate as well.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]