One odd question hangs over U.S. relations with Korea, both South and North, in this pivotal election year in which South Koreans decide next month on their next president. That is, who is directing American policy and how is Washington navigating between conflicting views in the South and rising threats from the North?
After having had no ambassador to South Korea for more than a year, President Joe Biden has named Philip Goldberg, a career ambassador whose j0b more than 10 years ago was to get the UN to enforce sanctions on North Korea, to the post. Goldberg has a long background as an ambassador to countries with difficult relationships with the U.S., including Bolivia, the Philippines, and, most recently, Colombia. But Korea may be his biggest challenge yet.
What took Biden so long to name him? One answer is the administration has been so consumed by Ukraine that it has hardly had time for interaction with Korea’s outgoing President Moon Jae-in, barred by Korea’s Democracy Constitution from running for a second five-year term. Like it or not, however, policymakers in Washington will have to consider seriously how to deal with Moon’s successor after voters on March 9 choose between the left-leaning Lee Jae-myung or the hawkish conservative Yoon Suk-yeol.Even with Goldberg designated as ambassador, getting him to Korea won’t be easy. Ted Cruz, the conservative senator from Texas, has been blocking approval of dozens of ambassadorial appointments while calling on Biden to act decisively against Russia’s dream of shipping natural gas through a new pipeline to Germany. As long as Cruz stands fast, the appointments don’t get out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and onto the floor of the Senate, where far more often than not, they’re approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote.
The charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, with years of diplomatic experience, can take charge of diplomacy day by day, but real diplomacy isn’t routine when you consider the difficulties between the U.S. and South Korea.
Right now, Washington and Seoul disagree on how to deal with North Korea. No, the Americans are too diplomatic to denounce this end-of-war declaration that Moon is demanding as nonsense. Instead, they say how close is the historic unshakeable, unbreakable bond between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. At every opportunity, they echo Moon’s calls for dialogue with the North. And then, contrary to what President Moon wants to hear, they demand that North Korea get rid of its nukes before any deal is possible.
In fact, the rift between the U.S. and Republic of Korea on how much to concede by way of appeasing North Korea may be yet another reason for Biden to have been slow to name an ambassador. You won’t hear anyone officially making that point, but the unspoken word in Seoul is that Biden would have moved faster if Washington and Seoul were on the same wavelength.
The suspicion is that the Americans have been waiting to see the outcome of the Korean presidential election. It would be easy to conclude that Washington supports Yoon since he’s calling for rebuilding great ties with the U.S. and, unlike Moon and Lee, demanding North Korea give up its nukes as a prerequisite to anything. Lee has shown how simpatico he is with North Korea by calling on Yoon to retract that statement, and North Korea is saying Yoon should retract his whole candidacy ― that is, not run at all. Wouldn’t it be great, some Americans and Koreans are saying, if Yoon were to restore the U.S.-South Korea alliance to the good old days?
That view has a few flaws. One is that Yoon’s election might precipitate a North-South Korean showdown, replete with mounting threats and unpredictable incidents. Another is that Yoon, if elected, might backtrack and adopt a softer stance just to head off a potential crisis. For that matter, Lee, if elected, might not want to undermine or ruin the alliance with the U.S. by making concessions to the North without guarantees of anything substantive in return.
No one can be sure what’s really going to happen between North and South Korea until, well, until it happens. That uncertainty is another reason for Washington to pursue a policy of watchful waiting, awaiting the outcome of the election. Goldberg, assuming he becomes ambassador without too much hassle, should be arriving in time to see which way the winds are blowing from both Seoul and Pyongyang with a new man in the Blue House, the center of power in South Korea.