Reshaping U.S.-South Korea Relations under the Biden Administration

Congressman Andy Kim spoke about the future of this relationship and its implications for shaping the region and world.

April 27, 2021

Rep. Andy Kim

Institute for Korean Studies Director Jisoo Kim (top) moderated a discussion with Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) about forging a renewed U.S. relationship with South Korea founded on mutual benefit under the Biden administration.

By Tatyana Hopkins

The United States has the opportunity in this time of revitalization and malleability in the approaching post-COVID era to rebuild its relationship with South Korea on a foundation of respect, said U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.).

“[This] isn’t just important for the future of our two countries, but it sets a template that can help us achieve peace and stability in the region and across the world,” he said.

However, Mr. Kim said the U.S. approach to its relationship with South Korea has long been transactional, even more so in recent years.

“If peace and stability are the ends, then the relationship is the means, and right now, we must face the fact that ours is a relationship that has been strained over the past few years,” he said. “The Trump administration saw the relationship between the United States and South Korea as one built on transaction, not trust; one built to demonstrate strength at home, not project stability abroad; and as one that in the end achieved nothing but a series of photo ops and a set of challenges for the new administration to tackle.”

Mr. Kim, who currently serves on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees and is a former official at the State Department, Pentagon and White House National Security Council, shared his thoughts about the challenges and opportunities of the United States reshaping its relationship with South Korea during a virtual event on Monday.

Hosted by the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies (IKS) and the East Asia National Resource Center, both housed in the Elliott School of International Affairs, and moderated by IKS Director Jisoo Kim, the discussion took place ahead next month’s planned face-to-face meeting between President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“In a month, President Moon will sit down with President Biden to discuss the immediate challenges facing our two nations, and their immediate goal should be a clear path to long-term peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” Mr. Kim said.

To achieve this peace and stability, he said the United States must first recognize that South Korea is “a cornerstone of the entire Pacific theater” and commit to more productive bilateral engagement with South Korea. He said the meeting between the two presidents would be a chance to revitalize the alliance to be one built on benefits “flowing in both directions.”

Mr. Kim said a more strategic alliance between the two countries based on mutual respect could define a renewed approach toward North Korea, future policy toward China and regional stability.

He said while the threat of an unstable and aggressive North Korea armed with nuclear weapons remains a constant, the United States has not given enough attention to the challenges facing the Korean peninsula. He said while U.S. officials have long touted the goal of denuclearization, such an objective would require a sustained and strategic framework.

“Oftentimes our approach to North Korea is very reactionary,” Mr. Kim said. “We are responding to headline news, we're responding to missile tests or other types or forms of aggression, and we're not thinking about it strategically. This is something that I'm hoping that the Biden administration, and me and others can try to crystallize…together.”

While he said building a bilateral relationship with South Korea could help bring peace to the Korean peninsula, he said doing so elsewhere could also bring stability to the region, especially in relation to China.

“While there is a debate within South Korea about how to approach their own relationship with China, I believe it's imperative that the United States doubles down on our efforts to project strength through respect,” Mr. Kim said.

He warned against an American policy built on an arms race and punitive economic, technological and military measures.

“We must project, both in South Korea and through the rest of the world, an American alternative to that aggression and influence,” Mr. Kim said. “If China's approach is zero sum with no room for dissent or disagreement, the American alternative must be respectful of the wants and needs of others.”