Woo Jung Yeop is a research fellow at Sejong Institute in South Korea. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Carlos Santamaria: What are a few ways you think the US election might impact South Korea?
WJY: Not only the South Korean government, but most people in South Korea view the US election this time through mainly three issues. First is how a Trump second term or a new Biden administration will approach North Korea. Second, how each would approach the alliance issue. And third, how the new US government would approach US-China relations, because that will affect South Korea's geopolitical position in the next four years.
Those three areas could be affected by the result of the election in November. That is why South Korea has a very keen interest in the outcome.
CS: Tell us a bit more about the North Korean angle...
The South Korean government had very high hopes in 2018 and 2019 when President Trump approached Kim Jong-un directly, because the South Korean government had a prospect that with that direct approach, the US government could probably expedite the denuclearization of North Korea and eventually peace on the Korean Peninsula.
In the past, with a more traditional approach from the US side, maybe during the Obama administration, there was no real outcome that we could possibly get out of it. So when President Trump said that he's going to directly deal with Kim Jong-un — even though after the second half of 2019 there was no real progress made between Trump and Kim — the South Korean government believed that it is much more possible with a Trump administration to have a solution for denuclearization. So that is why some Korean observers still believe that the Trump administration is preferable.
CS: Do you believe that opinion is shared by a majority of the people, beyond the government?
WJY: I will not say it's a majority. Yes, some observers have a concern that President Trump's hasty manner of approaching this delicate issue would result in an unsatisfying outcome. For example, if President Trump pursues some kind of deal that will give some room for North Korea to sustain its economy, it's not a solution for the denuclearization of North Korea. I'm referring to measures that would allow North Korea to keep their nuclear weapons, and at the same time ease the sanctions to the extent that North Korea doesn't need to negotiate with the United States anymore. There is a very strong division within South Korea with regard to President Trump's approach to North Korea.
CS: What about the US alliance?
WJY: One of the issues that is very critical these days between the US and South Korea is burden-sharing. Many Koreans, including conservatives who advocate for strengthening the alliance, cannot support the burden-sharing demands made by President Trump at this stage. We understand that as the security environment has changed and as the South Korean economy has grown so much compared to the past, the South Korean government can and should contribute more to the alliance. But not in the way that President Trump has proposed. On burden-sharing, many people believe that the Biden administration would be better in terms of managing the alliance because President Trump downplays the importance of the alliance.
CS: How is the US-China rivalry playing out in South Korea?
WJY: It affects South Korea, both in security and on the economy/trade. For example, with the Huawei issue on 5G, some South Korean companies want to use parts from Huawei. But with the worsening relations between the US and China, the US government demands its allies and partners not use parts from Huawei. So, the South Korean government has to make a choice whether to use the parts from Huawei or not. And the Chinese government explicitly demands the South Korean government keep using the parts from Huawei. With the experience in the past that the South Korean economy was hurt by the Chinese, the South Korean government is concerned.
In the early 2000s, when relations between US and China were good enough, South Korea enjoyed good economic relations with China and at the same time, good security and overall good relations with the United States. But it seems like it's not going to be possible anymore with the worsening relations between the US and China. And we know that there is a bipartisan consensus within the United States, that a negative view towards China is prevailing in the US. But it seems like that maybe a Biden administration will have a bit more flexibility.
CS: Do you think a Biden administration would not force you to make that really tough choice?
WJY: Probably the Biden administration, on more like multilateral issues — including climate change and other things such as the global response to the epidemics — will want to engage China, so the US will have to soften its approach towards China, compared to the current approach by the Trump administration. That is why many South Koreans believe that a Biden administration might be more flexible than a Trump administration with regard to China, even though we know that the negative view towards China is dominant within the United States.
CS: What's the current perception of the US under President Trump for South Koreans right now? Do you think this is going to change at all with Biden in the White House?
WJY: I think that the US has lost its reputation as a global leader under the Trump administration. South Koreans in general believe that a Biden administration would turn the course of the United States back to the more traditional way the US behaves in global politics.
This interview is part of the GZERO project Global voices on the US election, which you can find in full here.