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[US elections and Korea] US presidential election to bring changes, challenges for Seoul

US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden speak at the presidential debate on Oct. 22. (AFP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden speak at the presidential debate on Oct. 22. (AFP-Yonhap)

The fate of US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will be decided in a week, but for South Korea difficulties lie ahead regardless of the winner.

For South Korea, Special Measures Agreement issue -- the negotiations over Seoul’s share of the cost of maintaining US Forces Korea -- will be the most immediate issue, experts say.

The talks began late 2019, but the two sides have so far failed to narrow their differences. The US is said to be requesting an increase of 50 percent from the current 1.04 trillion won ($923 million), while Seoul remains firm on its counteroffer of a 13 percent increase.

Experts say that should Trump win a second term, Washington is likely to raise the pressure to meet its goal of a 50 percent increase, and that second Trump administration could link the negotiations with the possibility of reducing US Forces Korea.

Another issue that will burden Seoul is US-China relations, regardless of who wins the election.

“Policies will be hardline from both Trump and Biden. Neither can ignore (US) domestic opinion, and Trump nor Biden can transcend that. It is a matter of whether there will be changes in terms of policies, but the hardline stance will be maintained,” professor Kim Hyun-wook from Korea National Diplomatic Academy said, citing a survey that showed 77 percent of the US public to hold negative sentiments about China.

While the specifics of Biden’s plans concerning South Korea in relation to China remains unclear, US Rep. Tom Suozzi, an ally of the Democrat candidate, has hinted that Biden will seek cooperation with allies including South Korea in dealing with China.

In an interview with a South Korean news agency, Suozzi said that Biden will not soften US stance on China should he be elected, and that the US needs to work with countries that share core values such as democracy and capitalism to balance China. According to the news agency, Suozzi cited South Korea, Australia, Europe and Israel as countries that share such values with the US.

With US-China friction appearing likely to continue regardless of the election outcome, Seoul will need to carefully review its policies and its position in between the two superpowers.

“(Seoul) needs to carefully consider its strategy. Communication on China polices with the US is important, but there are little signs of such communication,” Kim Hyun-wook said.

Citing China’s economic retaliation against South Korea over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, Kim Hyun-wook said that Seoul should consider the consequences of its actions in US-China relations.

“(Washington and Seoul) need to communicate on how to deal with the China issue. We need a guarantee of support from the US should China take action against us.”

While China issues are likely to remain unchanged, North Korean issues appear likely to develop along very different routes depending on who wins the election.

Biden appears unlikely to engage North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the manner Trump has. Biden has made his opinion of Kim Jong-un clear, referring to him as a “thug” and criticized Trump for legitimizing the North Korean leader.

During last week’s presidential debate, Biden stated that he would only meet Kim Jong-un on condition that he agrees to “drawing down his nuclear capacity,” a promise that the North has shown little intention of honoring or meeting US standards.

“North Korea is not high on Biden’s list of priorities. It would be summer at least when he gets around to it, there are many factors such as will North Korea wait that long, and that South Korea will have entered the presidential election phase,” Kim Hyun-wook said, adding that North Korean denuclearization issue will lose momentum if Biden wins the election.

By Choi He-suk (