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[Robert Fouser] South Korea and a second Trump term

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 15, 2023 - 05:30

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December in the US brings short days, chilly weather, and the Holidays, but every four years it brings something else: quiet before the stormy primary season for major party nomination that begins in January. This year, however, things are different. President Joe Biden, running for reelection, is facing little serious opposition for the Democratic nomination. But with sagging approval ratings and advancing age, many doubt the viability of his candidacy. On the Republican side, former President Donald Trump is leading the race for the Republican nomination, despite having been charged with a total of 91 felony counts. He is currently out on bail in four jurisdictions.

An overwhelming majority of Americans say they don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch. The number of third-party candidates keeps growing and together they are pulling at least 10 percent in the polls. Democrats who blame close losses in 2000 and 2016 on third party candidates are worried that they will pull more from President Biden than Trump, thus swinging the election away from them once more.

Younger Americans -- young Millennials and Gen Z voters -- dislike both parties and feel alienated from older politicians who only offer up tropes from days gone by. They are pessimistic about their future and want change. This explains why so many young voters who lean left are critical of Biden and willing to consider a third party.

Meanwhile, December 6 was the last of four officially sponsored Republican debates. With a strong lead in the polls, Trump has skipped all the debates, leaving them to candidates trailing far behind. Each debate has seen fewer participants on stage, with only four left for the final debate. Establishment Republicans first gravitated to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis but have recently shifted to Nikki Haley as she has risen in the polls. Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and former US ambassador to the UN, has moved into second place, but still behind Trump.

For South Korea, this election ranks as one of the most important US elections since 1980 when Reagan’s victory reaffirmed the US security commitment after years of stress during the administration of Jimmy Carter. A Biden victory would mean a continuation of the status quo. Chances are high that Biden would not make it through a second term, but his Vice President Kamala Harris is an establishment figure who would continue Biden’s foreign policy in the likely event that she became president. Though unpopular now, things could change if she moves into the White House. She would be eligible to run for president at least in 2028 and, if Biden makes it through more than two years of his term, again in 2032.

The Republican candidates differ sharply on foreign policy. Trump has doubled down on his isolationist "Make America Great Again" ideology that defined his first term. Then, his antagonism to South Korea was restrained by the many foreign policy establishment Republicans who surrounded him. His overtures to North Korea, meanwhile, were tolerated as a show to make the president feel good because nobody believed a “deal” with North Korea was possible. In a second term, those guardrails would be off. Defeating Biden would embolden Trump and he would surround himself with people loyal to him and his MAGA ideology. The alliance between South Korea and the US would be tested as never before.

Though unlikely, a Nikki Haley nomination and election victory would mean a continuation of the status quo but in relations with South Korea, but with the prospect of a more assertive US stance toward China and North Korea. Biden is an Atlanticist at heart, but Haley looks more toward the Indo-Pacific. She would work to develop a stronger alliance to contain China and South Korea would be an important link in those efforts.

As things stand now, South Korea should be worried. A series of recent polls shows Trump running ahead of Biden. Biden’s approval ratings are languishing around 40 percent, which suggests defeat. Things could change. Republicans could get cold feet and shift quickly to Haley. The sour public mood in the US could improve as inflation falls and employment remains strong, giving Biden a boost. All possible, but also unlikely.

Which means that the most likely outcome is a close election between an unpopular incumbent president and an unpopular and mostly-likely-convicted-felon former president. It’s not a pretty picture, but the thought of a Trump victory is truly terrifying not just for the US, but also for South Korea and beyond.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.