Joe Biden was inaugurated as the new president of the U.S. on Wednesday, heralding the new era in the U.S. after overcoming extreme chaos and fear surrounding the transition of power. The Biden administration will begin cleaning up the negative legacy of the previous administration led by former President Donald Trump. The new administration will focus on healing divisions and conflicts domestically while restoring the order of liberalism internationally.
The opening of the Biden administration means the return of the traditional superpower as the leader of liberal democratic countries valuing democracy, human rights, and alliance. It will be quite different from the Trump administration’s unilateral self-righteousness, ignoring of norms, and disregard for alliances. However, the Biden administration will lead the world while protecting its own national interests in a more detailed manner based on values and rules. The return of the U.S. as a global leader requires undeniable changes in Northeast Asia centering around the Korean Peninsula.
First of all, the Biden administration asked South Korea to re-exam its overall policy toward North Korea. U.S. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said the North’s nuclear issues have gotten worse, not better, during his confirmation hearing, indicating that the Trump-style approach will be discontinued. Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin said the U.S.’s military readiness posture will be enhanced in response to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, which means applying stricter conditions for denuclearization and reinforcing sanctions and pressure on the North, going beyond discarding the previous top-down approach.
The intensity of the U.S.’s request for other countries to join it in checking China is expected to increase. Among all policies put forward by President Trump, the only policy of which all members of the new administration approve is the one toward China. The strategic competition between the U.S. and China will be further intensified in the Biden era, which will result in bigger pressure on South Korea. In addition, strengthening a cooperation system among South Korea, the U.S., and Japan by improving relations between South Korea and Japan has become an inevitable task now.
However, the South Korean government is full of vague optimism. “The new Biden administration has many things in common with the South Korean government, such as its values, multilateralism, and how it values allies,” said South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a New Year’s press conference. He also said that he will try to convince the new administration to continue with the Singapore agreement from the Trump administration, which turned out to be a failure, and that he will negotiate with North Korea regarding the ROK-U.S. joint military exercises, which should be decided between South Korea and the U.S. This is why President Moon is under criticism for misreading the new U.S. administration.
The U.S. in the Biden era is not the same U.S. that supported South Korea’s democracy and inter-Korean reconciliation and President Biden is not the same Biden who exchanged a tie with a South Korean president. They have more urgent internal needs. The unusual sight of the inauguration ceremony, which was held under tight security, shows tough domestic challenges before the new administration, which means little room for the country’s foreign policies. These are the reasons that the launch of the Biden administration should not be interpreted as the return of a humble and friendly ally.