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Seoul braces for uncertainty on peninsula as US head to polls

US President Donald Trump (left) and former Vice President Joe Biden (AFP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump (left) and former Vice President Joe Biden (AFP-Yonhap)

As Americans head to the polls Tuesday, the South Korean government is watching closely and bracing itself for uncertainty. Whoever is elected, the result will have a lasting impact on the Korean Peninsula and the bilateral alliance for the next four years.

Seoul’s national security officials and related ministries are monitoring the election that will determine whether US President Donald Trump will lead the country for another four years or Democratic challenger Joe Biden will sweep the White House as polls have suggested. The final polls were incredibly bullish on former Vice President Biden, who is leading nationally and in the most important swing states, but Trump’s reelection remains a possibility.

For Seoul, several critical issues hinge on the battle between the two candidates, who offer starkly different visions of the US’ role in the world. They include the stalled efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the Seoul-Washington defense cost-sharing standoff and the future of the alliance amid heated US-China rivalry.

Observers say Trump will likely double down on his “America First” agenda in regards to foreign policy, keeping up pressure on the US’ allies to pay their “fair share” of the defense costs. In contrast, Biden is pledging to strengthen the alliance with Seoul. As for North Korea, the Trump administration is expected to continue its top-down approach and to arrange for Trump to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un again. In contrast, Biden would likely opt for a “step-by-step” approach and push for tighter sanctions on Pyongyang, with a greater focus on coordinated efforts with allies and working-level talks, and less on summit diplomacy.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry launched an internal task force in August, preparing possible responses under both scenarios -- either Trump heading for a second term or Biden winning the White House. Its officials have been analyzing the two candidates’ election pledges and their basic positions on major issues in order to grasp how the election outcome will affect Seoul’s foreign policy. Led by First Vice Minister Choi Jong-kun, the team consists of officials from bureaus in charge of North America affairs, nuclear negotiation with Pyongyang and bilateral economic affairs, among others.

The Defense Ministry here is also analyzing and preparing for the election result and its impact on the Korean Peninsula and the alliance, as well as keeping close tabs on North Korea due to the possibility of any provocations, in mind of Pyongyang’s precedent of military actions around or after the US election.

“The South Korean and the US intelligence authorities are carefully monitoring related movements while maintaining close coordination,” JCS spokesperson Col. Kim Jun-rak said Monday, on whether the military detected any unusual movement in the North after reports of increased activity at Pyongyang’s main Yongbyon nuclear complex.

The Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, said it is closely watching the result with related agencies and experts, due to the possibility of change in North Korea policy depending on the result.

Seoul’s key security officials are also planning to visit Washington after the election, in a move to manage pending issues on North Korea and the bilateral relations.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is slated to meet her counterpart US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington after the election, though the exact timing hasn’t been decided yet. The two will address an array of outstanding bilateral issues, including the defense cost-sharing and deadlocked denuclearization efforts on North Korea.

Seoul’s top nuclear negotiator Lee Do-hoon is also expected to make a visit to Washington along with Kang, meeting his counterpart Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who doubles as the US point man on talks with the North. The two sides are likely to discuss on how to move stalled talks with the reclusive regime forward.

Unification Minister Lee In-young could also visit Washington after the election for the first time since he took office in July, observers said. The ministry on Tuesday has neither confirmed nor denied Lee’s possible visit to Washington.

Depending on the election results, Seoul officials’ trip to Washington will likely be tasked with different agenda. If Biden wins, officials will likely take some time to build rapport behind-the-scenes with people and experts that have connection with Biden’s aides and circles.

If Trump wins, the authorities will likely double down commitment on its bilateral alliance to solve unsettled issues and put efforts to move forward in dealing with North Korea.

The election result might become apparent on Wednesday (Korea time), but could also take longer because of an unprecedented number of mail-in and early in-person votes this year.

By Ahn Sung-mi (
Korea Herald Youtube