A. Zhebin: Address to UPF Webinar

 1. Donald Trump’s Korean Heritage and Joe Biden

Almost all experts agree that a Joe Biden victory in the U.S. presidential election would lead to significant changes in U.S. foreign policy. The world is already familiar with such U-turns, which, every eight or even four years, confuse both friends and foes of the United States. It is enough to recall the ABC (“Anything but Clinton”) policy, de facto carried out by George W. Bush, or the very recent example of the ABO (“Anything but Obama”) line, practiced by Donald Trump.

This is to say about the predictability of foreign policy. The United States is so fond of blaming North Korea for its lack of predictability. But when it concerns the United States itself, the only thing that is predictable is that each new U.S. president is highly likely to violate or cancel international treaties signed by his predecessors, and withdraw from bilateral and even multilateral international agreements and organizations.

Apparently, we all may have to go through a similar period, but now under the slogan ABT (“Anything but Trump”). But today we will talk about the Korean Peninsula. What changes could we expect in U.S. policy in this direction?

Firstly, almost all experts agree that the Korean Peninsula would be unlikely to feature prominently on Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Besides huge domestic problems, there is an urgent task to repair bilateral relations with key U.S. allies, badly damaged under Trump, as well as U.S.-led military and political alliances – from Europe to East Asia. Only North Korea's ICBM or nuclear weapons tests might require a shift of attention to Korea.

Secondly, Biden himself has repeatedly criticized Trump's "summit diplomacy" with Kim Jong Un and said that a meeting with the North Korean leader is possible only if he agrees to the American denuclearization scenario. At the same time, Biden's foreign policy team has an understanding that a one-time solution to the nuclear problem is unrealistic. They do not rule out contacts at the working level for the purpose of exchanging mutual concessions if they lead to the DPRK's abandonment of its nuclear and missile programs.

Thirdly, some experts believe that, taking into account Biden's eight-year work in the Obama administration, a return to the policy of "strategic patience" practiced during Obama’s term could not be excluded. At the same time, the Democrats would not abandon the policy of "maximum pressure" against the DPRK which was carried out by Trump. It enjoys almost unanimous bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and it is credited with the fact that the DPRK has not conducted ICBM launches or nuclear tests since the fall of 2017.

Fourthly, Biden, like almost all previous presidents, would likely require a review of U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula, which might take several months. Given the time needed to replace the Trump foreign policy team and to get approval from Congress for the new people, the emergence of a new course and the Biden team that would implement would not likely appear before the summer of 2021.

The most important factor on which progress on the North Korean track depends will be relations with China. Many of Trump's tough measures against Beijing have met with bipartisan support in Congress. If Biden would continue a policy of containing China, North Korea's value for China as a trump card in relations with the United States would remain, and Pyongyang would feel more comfortable and less inclined to make concessions to the United States.

2. Geopolitics vs. Nonproliferation in U.S. Foreign Policy

The United States’ obvious unwillingness to sign even a non-binding War-End Declaration with North Korea proves once again that the U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula is prompted mainly by geopolitical considerations. The approach which represents the real, not declamatory U.S. policy on Korea was epitomized by Victor Cha, a well-known expert on Korean affairs in the George W. Bush administration. As early as 2009, he left a very explicit behest to Obama administrations: “Keep an eye on the prize: Remember that the ultimate prize is not denuclearization but managing an eventual ‘inheritance’ process where a united Korea, free and democratic, is an engine of peace and economic growth in Asia and a global partner of the United States in world affairs.”[1]

The nonproliferation agenda was and remains a supplementary tool to achieve U.S. geopolitical aims in the region. Those aims have remained unchanged for the whole post-World War II period, irrespective of the incumbent administration – Republican or Democratic. These aims can be summarized as maintaining political and military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, nowadays extended to the Indo-Pacific, and, according to Joe Biden, continuing “to write the rules of the road for the world.”[2]

Any real détente in Korea—the more so, normalization of relations between the United States and the DPRK, or between North and South Korea—inevitably would call into question the U.S. military presence on the peninsula. U.S. troops’ withdrawal from South Korea could provoke the same developments in Japan. Both developments would remove a cornerstone of the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific as a whole, since it is based on bilateral military-political alliances with Japan and the ROK and the forward deployment of U.S. armed forces in these countries.

Besides, the normalization of relations between the United States and the DPRK or the drastic improvement of inter-Korean relations would lead to the disappearance of the so-called “North Korean threat.” The development, in its turn, would deprive the United States of the last more or less serious argument justifying deployment of missile defense systems in Northeast Asia.

Therefore the United States is actually interested either in maintaining tension on the peninsula at the level justifying deployment of U.S. troops and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, or, in the best of cases, in bringing about a regime change in the DPRK. The latter scenario would allow the United States to spread its control over the whole of the Korean Peninsula – a region of Asia that is unique in military-strategic value, bordering both Russia and China – two powers which potentially can still challenge the U.S. world hegemony. The advancement of U.S. armed forces right on Korea’s overland borders with China and Russia would bring about radical changes in the military-political situation in East Asia and in the Asia-Pacific region.

3. The Korean Peninsula and U.S.-China Relations

To understand China's position, it is necessary to consider that China and Korea have been neighbors for several thousand years. Till the 20th century Korea was included in China's exclusive sphere of influence. The break of the last 150 years means nothing from China's vision of history and its long-term interests on the peninsula and in the region, when compared with the previous 5,000 years and maybe the same period in the future.

In spite of an ongoing debate within Chinese leadership and among foreign policy experts on the feasibility of China’s current policy of keeping North Korea afloat, it is unlikely that even post-communist China, to say nothing of the present-day one, which is preserving the socialist system and the ruling role of the Communist Party, would agree to a situation in which it finds a united Korea under the U.S. prevailing political influence, to say nothing of U.S. troops. However, it will be exactly the case if North Korea collapses in the near future.

China, irrespective of other great powers' positions, prefers, at least for the time being, to keep North Korea afloat as a buffer zone between itself and the U.S. forward deployment forces on Asia’s mainland. For China to lose North Korea would be equal to losing the second Korean War with the possible subsequent stationing of U.S. troops on the Yalu River. The prospect is absolutely unacceptable in view of both the current U.S. policy toward China and Beijing's plans concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The United States understands that any attempt to take hold of what China has considered its sphere of influence for hundreds of years would lead to a major quarrel with the world’s economic superpower and with another world civilization – a Confucian one. For the time being, the United States seemingly also is not ready for a major conflict with China over North Korea.

Beijing, apparently, will try henceforth to employ all diplomatic as well as economic resources necessary to ensure the DPRK's survival. At the same time, China will encourage North Korea in every possible way to exercise restraint in foreign policy and to go on with economic transformations which would lessen the political and economic burden on China to support the regime in Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, Washington is actively exploiting Beijing's desire to avoid direct confrontation with the United States and to prolong the peace situation on its borders. The United States exerts enormous pressure on China, trying to force it to participate in the economic strangulation of the DPRK, and at the same time to show to the world that the United States is capable of forcing China to act as the United States wishes, even in relations with countries that are China’s neighbors or even allies.

The United States is persistently trying to involve China in the planning of coordinated actions in the event of some emergency in the DPRK, by which the West understands the collapse of the regime. I think the Chinese do not believe the promises of the Americans that in this case the United States would not expand its military presence to the northern part of the peninsula, but would limit itself only to the search and removal of North Korean weapons of mass destruction. Beijing is unlikely unaware of similar promises made to the Soviet leadership about the NATO non-expansion to the East and compares them with the current realities in Europe.

At the moment there is quite a delicate balance on the peninsula – the United States is trying by “maximum pressure” (sticks) and promises of security assurances and economic prosperity (carrots) to rein in and "drag" the DPRK into its sphere of influence, but China is doing its best to retain North Korea as a friendly state and a buffer to U.S. forward deployment forces in East Asia.

4. Reconciliation in Korea and Russia’s Interests

Russia always welcomed all moves by the two Korean states aimed at relaxing tension and promoting inter-Korean cooperation, because of two major considerations: Moscow hopes that inter-Korean reconciliation, firstly, will remove the threat of military conflict right next to its eastern border, and secondly, will promote a more favorable environment for development of Russia’s bilateral economic ties with the two Korean states as well as for implementing multilateral economic projects with Russia’s participation in Northeast Asia.

Russia's firm conviction is that there is no alternative to inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. Besides being economically advantageous, such interaction is highly likely to contribute to confidence-building and reconciliation between South and North Korea.

Russia is ready to work with China, the United States, Japan and other parties concerned to create international conditions favorable for a sustainable peace process on the peninsula.

5. Conclusion

The ongoing suspension of the negotiating process on the nuclear problem provides South and North Korea with a unique chance, through their own mutual efforts, to seize leadership in removing the threat of another major conflict, promoting peace and common prosperity. The best option for the Koreans would be to resume working to implement the bilateral agreements reached between South and North Korea at the various talks held during several previous decades, including those agreed upon at the three historic inter-Korean summits held in 2018. It is high time for Koreans both in the North and in the South to take their nation’s destiny in their own hands.

Russia hopes that the future unified Korea will become its good neighbor and a major economic partner. The emergence of such an actor in the region is perceived in Moscow as beneficial both for Russia’s security and for its economic interests in East Asia.



[1] Cha, Victor. U.S.-Korea Relations: Obama’s Korea Inheritance. Comparative Connections. Oct.-Dec. 2009. URL:

[2] Marc Champion, Nick Wadhams and Arne Delfs. The World Has Changed Too Much for Biden to Erase the Trump Effect. Bloomberg. 17.07.2020.URL:


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