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The Korean Peninsula After the U.S. Election

Date & Time

Nov. 5, 2020
8:00am – 9:10am ET


NEW: Read a full summary of the event

President Donald Trump’s first four years in the White House sparked dramatic shifts in diplomacy in Northeast Asia, including historic summits with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, protracted military negotiations with South Korea and rising strategic competition with China. What could the next four years look like for Asia if he is re-elected? And what changes and challenges might we anticipate if former Vice President Joseph Biden wins the November election?

As Americans head to the polls, experts from the United States, South Korea and Europe examine how foreign policy in the region will be impacted by the man who takes the White House in January 2021. Whether President Trump wins a second term or former Vice President Biden seizes the presidency, the Nov. 3 presidential election is bound to have a deep impact on the Korean Peninsula, including how to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, navigate a rising China and restore fraying alliances.

Joining us for this discussion are Joseph YUN of the U.S. Institute of Peace who is  a former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy and deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan,who has worked in both the Obama and Trump administrations; Jean H. LEE, the former AP journalist who opened the news agency’s Pyongyang bureau; KIM Joonhyung, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy; political analyst and talk show host KIM Jiyoon, and Ramon PACHECO PARDO, Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies.

This event is organized by the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy and the KF-VUB Korea Chair as part of the 2020 Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity: Reinventing Multilateral Security.

Selected Quotes

Joseph Yun

“A lot of people think Biden will be like Obama 3. Well, I’m not sure I agree with that assessment. Because Biden has tremendous amounts of experience. He was a senator for 36 years, and of course, he was vice president for 8 years. So unlike President Obama when he came to the presidency in 2009, Biden comes with a lot of experience. And this matters greatly, especially when you come to hotspots that exist like the Korean Peninsula, because he already has an idea of what we would like to do, what he wants to do, and what he has done in the past. Let me point this out, that Biden himself is very pro-engagement, he’s very much pro-democracy. More recently, what’s struck me most about candidate Biden is the statement he made two days ago to the Korean community in the United States and to Korea. I thought that statement, which was made exclusively, was very, very significant. It shows that he thought about issues, and for him, the most important issues for Biden, are what to do about the nuclearization of North Korea… he seemed very committed to denuclearization of North Korea.”

“I think we need to assess what [Trump’s] second term could be like. Is he going to be like the first term, or is he going to be different? I would say one big difference between Biden and Trump is that Biden is not likely to have as many summit meetings as Donald Trump did. As you’ll recall, Donald Trump had three meetings in the matter of 12 months with Kim Jong Un. Totally unprecedented. Now, my hope is that President Biden does not undo many things that President Trump did, such as opening new channels of communication. I think that’s very important. Often the instinct of the new American president, especially if they’re from a different party, is to undo what the other person has done previously. Especially on controversial and sensitive foreign affairs and security issues. You’ve seen President Trump doing that on a number of issues, including Iran, climate change, and so on. My hope is that the progress Trump made on Korean issues, in opening new channels, Biden should keep, because ultimately there is no solution to the North Korean challenge, which is security, as well as the long-suffering people in North Korea, without diplomacy.”

Towards the end of the [Obama/Biden] administration.... they had realized, we had realized by then that what’s commonly known as “strategic patience” towards North Korea was just not working. And if you recall, one of the things that outgoing President Obama told Trump was that the greatest problem for U.S. security was North Korea. [In the summer of 2016], we were desperate to engage North Korea, except that North Korea wouldn’t have anything to do with us… when a new administration comes in, North Koreans have to give some time for the new administration. And that’s the thing I’m mostly worried about–– will North Korea give the US some time to come up with an engagement strategy. I must say that the more time North Korea gives the US to come up with a strategy, then the better that strategy will be, and the better the chance of diplomacy being successful.”

Kim Joonhyung

 “The relationship [between South Korea and the U.S.] has been called a blood alliance and since the two countries fought together in the Korean War, the alliance has continued since its formalization in 1955 by mutual defense treaty... But it has not been a shoulder-to-shoulder relationship. Instead, South Korea has consistently been, under the US security protection, a junior partner in an uneven alliance structure. The relationship of the two has looked more like a patron-client relationship. America’s dominant influence over politics, economy, and society, as well as the military, has constrained Korea’s autonomy significantly. Even when the Cold War came in the early 1990s, which was the original cause of Korea’s dependence on the US, the autonomy has not improved much, if at all.”

In American society, we have been witnessing throughout this election very divisive [language]. I was very surprised to hear such words, “antifa,” “communism,” and “radical left” from America since those words have been very commonplace here in Korea. Even after the collapse of the Cold War. The Korean side has become very ideologically divided, too. And alliances have become the core, or even the symbol, of this division. The division of the Korean Peninsula has deeply affected almost every aspect of life in Korea.”

“I think if Biden wins, two issues are very important. One issue is timing… we understand that Biden, a new government needs time to appoint and to think about and to meditate, but considering our time here… if the time is too late… we are going into another presidential election here. I wish and I hope and I’m trying to advise my government to cooperate and try to give some advice…. [but] we need to kind of, accelerate this. Another [thing] I want to talk about is advisors right now, especially the security and foreign policy team. I’ve heard a lot of people–– actually, two groups–– one is the reasonalist, as we call it, North Korean and South Korean and Korean Peninsula and China experts, many Asian experts. The other is a functionalist–– proliferation issues and North Korean denuclearization experts. We know that Biden’s top asset is that he has an ear to listen to experts… I think [it depends] on who Biden listens to more.”

Jean Lee

"I think that there’s no doubt that Kim Jong Un would prefer another Trump presidency, in terms of taking advantage of President Trump’s 'maverick style' of diplomacy. The real opportunity of his impulsiveness and craving for attention and drama provided a particular opening that Kim Jong Un understands and has been taking advantage of. Kim Jong Un has an opportunity to secure legitimacy as well as a very specific status and that is acknowledgement of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. He saw that President Trump was willing to offer that. While their 'special relationship' or 'friendship' has not quite yielded all that Kim Jong Un needs and wants, he has already invested so much in that relationship that he would prefer to stick to that process than start from the beginning."

"I think that if we do have a Biden presidency, one thing we will be watching is to see how quickly the Biden administration might lay out his foreign policy priorities. I think at the outset, a potential Biden administration would be consumed by the domestic issues not only stemming from [trying] to bring this coronavirus pandemic under control, but also trying to figure out how to reinvigorate an economy that is going to be absolutely shattered by this extended pandemic. However, if North Korea doesn’t figure into a Biden administration foreign policy’s priorities [list] quickly, I think that Kim Jong Un may turn back to a very tried and tested pattern of behavior of waging a major provocation to get back on Washington’s radar. So, this is something we’ll need to watch."

"The fact is that every Kim has wanted a better relationship with the United States: no one more than Kim Jong Un, who truly does want to move away from war and focus on the economy when it’s the right time for him. But he is not willing to give into peace for free. After using the purported threat of aggression from the United States for keeping his country in a wartime mentality, and spending these precious resources they simply don’t have to build nuclear weapons, he needs to extract a high price for peace and security. That is something that both leaders in the United States need to understand."

"The question that I have is whether a Biden administration -- and this a question that Ambassador Yun raised as well -- is whether a Biden administration will be able to learn from past mistakes, move forward from where things left off, take advantage of the openings that President Trump offered, and find the right equation for resolving a developing nuclear situation that has become exponentially more complicated in the past four years."

Kim Jiyoon

"As of now, the Korean people do not really feel the necessity of the alliance or have strong feelings for the United States because of the North Korean threat - it is because of China. It has changed since a long time ago. Of course, North Korea, to some people, is still a threat, but [overall] they feel the alliance is necessary because there is a threat coming from China. And this has been coming on for a long time."

“The difference between the young males and the elderly is this: the elderly, they see North Korea as the enemy and also at the same time as one of us. But the young males, they disproportionately think that North Korea is the enemy. So there is a huge emotional difference between these two generations. Also, the young generation think that the United States is a good friend and a great ally, and on the other hand, they have a very antagonistic feeling towards China -- and it's even getting worse.”

“Having nuclear weapons have some terrible consequences that we would have to face [...]. South Korea overall likes to have a big power, major power, and nuclear play can be, but they are really not very serious on that. Personally, I think it depends on how the government deals with these issues, how well the government publicizes what the consequences of having nuclear weapons are and why we are not having nuclear weapons, or why we are not developing nuclear weapons. Not just for South Korea’s own sake but we have to think about the global community and being a responsible player in the international scene. This is the time for us to do so.”


Joseph Yun

Joseph Yun

Senior Adviser to the Asia Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea policy
Kim Jyoonhyung

Kim Joonhyung

Chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in South Korea
Jean Lee Image

Jean H. Lee

Former Public Policy Fellow;
Journalist and former Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Associated Press
KIM Jiyoon

Kim Jiyoon

Political Analyst and Host of Jiyoon Kim’s Evening Show on TBS FM


Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

KF-VUB Korea Chair, Institute for European Studies

Hosted By

Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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