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South Korea Welcomes Biden Victory

People watch a TV screen showing the broadcast of US President-elect Joe Biden speaking, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 8, 2020.

South Korea has congratulated Democrat Joe Biden for his victory over President Donald Trump in what was a contentious election for the U.S. presidency.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent out brief messages on his social media accounts Sunday expressing support for the former U.S. vice president and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

“Congratulations to @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris. Our alliance is strong and the bond between our two countries is rock-solid. I very much look forward to working with you for our shared values,” the South Korean leader tweeted.

“I have great expectations of advancing and opening up the future development of our bilateral relations. Katchi Kapshida,” Moon wrote, using the Korean-language expression that means “let’s go together.”

Separately, South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Kang Kyung-wha will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for previously scheduled talks in Washington on Monday. It is unclear how the election will affect those discussions, which Seoul says will largely focus on North Korean denuclearization.

In a statement carried by the Yonhap News Agency on Sunday, Kang’s office said, "the foreign ministry has been directly and indirectly communicating with key figures in the Biden camp and the Democratic Party.”

Trump has not conceded and has vowed to challenge election results in several states in court.

Bilateral tension

Under the Trump administration, relations between Seoul and Washington were strained over issues such as the cost of stationing thousands of American soldiers on the peninsula. However, Trump and Moon found common cause in engaging Pyongyang, and together accomplished unprecedented diplomatic achievements, including three face-to-face meetings with the North’s ruler, Kim Jong-un.

Some observers expect that under Biden’s leadership, much of that bilateral tension could be eased, but inroads with North Korea gained during Trump’s single term might also be lost.

Gi-wook Shin, director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, said he expects the new administration to adopt an “anything but Trump” approach to domestic and foreign policy.

“The style of a Biden administration will be really different,” he said, adding that Washington will return to a “more conventional type of international diplomacy.”

Relations between the U.S. and North Korea appeared to go from one extreme to the other throughout the Trump administration.

In 2017, Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against Pyongyang, but a year later Trump and Kim began exchanging a series of private letters that helped foster two summits and another meeting inside the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone together with Moon.

“We fell in love,” Trump told reporters in 2018. “He wrote me beautiful letters.”

However, following the breakdown of negotiations during their second summit, in Hanoi early last year, there has been scant diplomatic activity between Washington and Pyongyang.

During a debate last month, Biden criticized Trump’s approach to engagement and called the North Korean leader a “thug,” but did not rule out a meeting with Kim if the regime agrees to denuclearize.

Pyongyang has not yet issued any comment on the U.S. election outcome but has previously referred to Biden as a “rabid dog” that must be “beaten with a stick.”

'Very crucial period'

Shin said Seoul is losing a partner whom it has worked “very closely and well with to engage North Korea,” but said that since the last summit, their interests have seemed to diverge over differing positions on sanctions relief and how hard to press Kim on giving up weapons of mass destruction programs.

Shin expects the next administration to unveil a new North Korean denuclearization policy by next summer.

“The first half of next year will be a very crucial period,” Shin said, adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if North Korea tries to test the Biden administration by shooting an ICBM.” (Intercontinental ballistic missile)

Other analysts hope that new American leadership will end the yearlong impasse over the amount of money Seoul should pay to host the roughly 28,000 U.S. soldiers based in South Korea. Washington wants South Korea to pay $1.3 billion a year, an approximately 50% increase over what it currently contributes.

The Special Measures Agreement, the bilateral cost-sharing mechanism, expired late last year, but envoys reached a temporary deal to fund the salaries of several thousand Korean employees at American military facilities until the end of December.

Trump has accused South Korea of taking advantage of the U.S. in terms of security, as well as trade, and has threatened to withdraw U.S. forces if more favorable deals aren’t reached, according to multiple media reports and a book written by his former national security adviser, John Bolton.

Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean special forces lieutenant general, said that despite Trump’s efforts to make peace with North Korea, these kinds of remarks hurt the public’s views of him.

“It’s not the amount of money, it's the way that the Trump administration has been asking and portraying the cost-sharing issue,” he said. “To say we are freeloaders is a little too much.”

A September Gallup Korea survey found support for Trump at 16%, compared to 59% for Biden.

Chun said he expected cost-sharing talks to be more “amiable” with the Biden administration and overall dialogue to be less “emotional” than it was during the Trump administration.

He cautioned, though, that Washington’s North Korean policy rests on Pyongyang’s “commitment to denuclearization,” a condition remains the same no matter who the American president is.