April 19, 2023 | 1945

The Biden-Yoon Summit: An Opportunity To Chart A New Alliance Course

It is time for the U.S. and its ally South Korea to execute a political warfare strategy that flips the conventional wisdom.
April 19, 2023 | 1945

The Biden-Yoon Summit: An Opportunity To Chart A New Alliance Course

It is time for the U.S. and its ally South Korea to execute a political warfare strategy that flips the conventional wisdom.

On April 26, U.S. President Joe Biden is set to host South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol for a bilateral summit and state visit in Washington, D.C. This meeting comes amid tensions on the Korean peninsula, as North Korea continues to test its wide range of ballistic missiles and sustains its hostile rhetoric towards the South and the U.S. The circumstances underscore the critical necessity of the ROK-U.S. alliance, which must remain iron-clad and resolute. This alliance is the lynchpin of peace and security on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia. 

However, the 70th anniversary of the alliance provides an opportunity to develop a new strategy altogether, with new ends, ways, and means.

The elections of Biden in 2020 and Yoon in 2022 have brought about a positive change in the ROK-U.S. alliance. The presidents seem to have aligned their assumptions about the nature, objectives, and strategy of the North Korean regime. Yoon has acknowledged that the regime in Pyongyang is the enemy, and he has embarked on making important improvements to ROK military readiness and capabilities. Most important, the alliance has significantly improved the readiness of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command, which both nations count on to deter an attack, and if deterrence fails, to defend the ROK and defeat North Korea’s military.

The resumption of major training exercises on land, sea, and air that include multi-echelon training on field maneuvers, live fire, and theater-command post computer simulation has revitalized readiness, five years after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally decided to cancel, postpone, and scale back exercises in the hope that it would positively influence North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Sadly, it did not.

Now it is appropriate to consider how the focus and strategy should evolve. 

Biden and Yoon will release a joint statement at the end of the summit. This traditional statement should include a commitment to a free and unified Korea. The ROK Ministry of Unification has released its 2023 white paper, “A Denuclearized, Peaceful, and Prosperous Korean Peninsula.” The significant elements of the paper include a denuclearized North Korea, a focus on the human rights of Koreans in the North, and the achievement of a “free and democratic Korea.” It is imperative the two presidents highlight a human rights upfront approach, as this is critical to achieving a free and unified Korea. The Biden administration should fully support this policy, and both administrations should draw strategic guidance from it to determine a new direction for the alliance. Details of a proposed new strategy can be found at the National Institute of Public Policy in a recent paper entitled “National Strategy for Countering North Korea.”

From 2009 through 2017, U.S. and South Korean leaders have called for peaceful unification in their joint statements. It is time now to definitively declare that the pursuit of a free and unified Korea is the foundation for the future of the alliance.

The alliance must shift from denuclearization as the overall objective to solving the so-called Korea question, which comes from paragraph 60 of the Armistice Agreement. The military commanders in 1953 recognized that a political settlement was required to solve the unnatural division of the peninsula. The alliance must pursue a free and unified Korea because the establishment of a United Republic of Korea that is secure, stable, economically vibrant, and non-nuclear, with a liberal constitutional form of government, is the only way to end the North’s threats (nuclear and conventional) and stop the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people in the North.

With the objective of a free and unified Korea, there are additional lines of effort required to solve the Korea question. Below we list some major points of emphasis.

The alliance must adopt a human rights upfront approach. Not only are human rights a moral imperative, they are also a national security issue. Kim must deny the human rights of the Korean people in the North so that he can remain in power. Koreans suffer because of Kim’s deliberate policy decisions to prioritize nuclear and missile development over the welfare of the people.

The alliance should develop and execute a comprehensive information and influence campaign. This campaign will aim to provide large quantities of information, from entertainment to news. It will include practical knowledge on how to take collective action to drive change. It will describe the truth about the situation in North Korea as well as the outside world, and promote understanding of universal human rights that apply to all people. Every time the ROK and U.S. are made to respond to provocations, they must also address human rights. Discussion of the nuclear program reinforces regime legitimacy, but calling out the regime for its human rights abuses undermines it.

The alliance must continue to sustain the high level of military readiness of the past year. Military strength provides the foundation for all other elements of national power. The allies should continue to pursue OPCON transition so that any military operations conducted in North Korea will be led by a Korean commander.

Although denuclearization of the North remains a worthy goal, it must be viewed as aspirational so long as the Kim family regime remains in power. The conventional wisdom has always been that denuclearization must come first and unification will follow, and that there should be no discussion of human rights out of fear that it would prevent Kim from making a denuclearization agreement.  

It is clear that Kim will not denuclearize, even though his policies have been an abject failure. He has failed to get sanctions relief; he has failed to subvert the ROK; and he has failed to drive a wedge in the ROK-U.S. alliance. His political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies completely failed in 2022 because Yoon and Biden, like their predecessors, refused to make the political and economic concessions he demanded just to come to the negotiating table: namely, to remove sanctions.  

Biden and Yoon have the opportunity to chart a new course for the alliance, and their joint statement should be the first communique of new strategic guidance to the policymakers, strategists, and planners in the alliance.

It is time for the U.S. and its ally South Korea to execute a political warfare strategy that flips the conventional wisdom by seeking unification first, and then denuclearization. The international community must realize that the only way to end nuclear threats and human rights abuses is through unification of the Korean peninsula. The ROK and U.S. must continue to maintain the highest state of military readiness to deter war and then adopt a human rights upfront approach. They must undertake a comprehensive and sophisticated information and influence activities campaign and focus all efforts on the pursuit of a free and unified Korea – ultimately achieving a United Republic of Korea.

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea). Follow him on Twitter @DavidMaxwell161. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Mathew Ha is a political science PhD student at George Mason University’s Schar school of Policy and Government, he is a former research analyst focused on North Korea and China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former analyst from Valens Global. His area of expertise includes U.S. foreign policy in Asia and North Korean cyber operations and sanctions policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy