Editor's Note

Jungkun Seo, Professor at Kyung Hee University, claims that with the results of the midterm elections in favor of Biden and the Democrats, Biden could likely run for re-election. Added to this, he expects that there will be no innovative strategy to tackle North Korea as Biden would have no choice but to take a hardline stance ahead of the 2024 election if North Korea's provocations make a prominent security threat to the United States. Professor Seo emphasizes that it will be extremely difficult for the U.S. to find a new breakthrough to the stalled peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

The United States held its midterm elections this November 8th, for which Americans were asked to vote on all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of Senate seats (35 in total) open to election. As is well known, it is common for the presiding president’s party to lose ground during midterm elections. Ever since the Democrats and Republicans established a two-party system, from Abraham Lincoln’s first midterm elections in 1862 to Donald Trump’s midterm elections in 2018, the president’s party has lost seats in 36 out of 40 elections. More notably, in midterm elections held after 1934, the president’s party lost an average of 28 seats in the House and 4 seats in the Senate. Historically, for presidential approval ratings below 50%, the president’s party lost an average of 37 seats, as opposed to 14 seats by those with approval ratings above 50%.


Do the results of this midterm election follow the historical trend or are they an outlier? There were two competing major theories ahead of the election. The first theory says that the president’s party, the Democrats, will be defeated much like in historical precedents, due to high levels of inflation and crime rates, gas prices, and a border crisis. The second theory posits that Biden and the Democrats will rally support from voters by opposing the Supreme Court’s unilateral decision to overturn Roe v. Wade—a landmark decision on abortion— and far-right “election denier” candidates who have denied the validity of the 2020 presidential election, thereby avoiding a heavy loss. As it turns out, the turnout rates for moderates and youth voters were relatively high in swing states, most voters in both blocs siding with Democrats. Though some remaining seats have yet to be decided, it can already be said that Democrats have fared relatively well while the Republicans have flopped. Politics is a game of expectations and it was reported that while Biden smiled at the results, Trump was furious. To summarize, the results indicate that, unlike historical trends, voters did not assign the blame for the once-in-a-generation inflation to President Biden and his party during this midterm election. Rather, the backlash against the aggressively conservative Supreme Court and election deniers who challenge the foundation of democracy have seemingly cost the Republicans the “Red Wave” they anticipated. For sure, it is desirable that citizens have increased their interests in the procedural fairness of democracy. The results also indicate that voters have displayed less interest in using the election to objectively evaluate economic failures. With American politics in its state of hyper polarization, this is a dilemma that will surely come back to haunt the U.S. in the future.


For President Biden, this midterm election mattered a great deal for both the trajectory of the next two years of his term, as well as his decision on whether or not to seek reelection. Regardless of the results for the Senate, a Republican House could obstruct Biden from legislating his agenda in his remaining years. Since the 2018 midterm results, the Republican President Trump and the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi displayed bipartisan support in areas such as trade protection and peace agreements in the Middle East. This happened against the backdrop of changes in the U.S.’ attitudes across both parties, such as the emphasis on “America First” policies or non-interventionism. In contrast, instances of policy cooperation between a Democratic President and a Republican House are far rarer, unless the president were to make a move rightward. Therefore, it seems evident that President Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will avert attention towards foreign policy, his forte.


Biden’s problem is the upcoming 2024 presidential election. If Biden were to have made a shocking decision to give up his re-election after suffering a crushing defeat during the midterms, there could be a possibility that he would seek an innovative strategy to tackle North Korea during the remainder of his term. Much like President Clinton in 2000, a Democrat president that does not need to run for the next election is the right statesman to improve relations with North Korea. However, with the results of the midterm elections in favor of Biden and the Democrats, Biden could likely run for re-election, especially given his track record of already beating Trump once. If this happens, Biden’s diplomatic options will be ironically diminished. If North Korea’s provocations, such as its ICBM launches, make it more prominent a security threat to the United States, Biden would have no choice but to take a hardline stance ahead of the election. This could take the form of strategies such as putting pressure on Xi Jinping or shifting the blame to his inaction. As of now, Biden is unlikely to move preemptively. Paradoxically, this may mean that the time is right for the South Korean government to make its bold move and lead this tough issue to build a firm security posture against North Korea’s nuclear threats as the utmost priority.


As for the situation within the United States, Biden’s diplomatic and security channels that are well aware of the North Korean problem, with members such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Kurt Campbell, may be interested in seeking a plan for a breakthrough in the current stalemate. However, the fact that Washington’s diplomatic team has a lot of experience with North Korea is not all good, as they lack confidence in North Korea and show resistance towards a Trump-style top-down approach. It would therefore mean that the Biden administration, compared to its predecessors, may be challenged to make a breakthrough, due to a kind of group-thinking mentality. Conversely, it is noteworthy that the U.S.’s history of normalizing relations (which normally refers to improvements in relations such as by forming diplomatic ties and jointly establishing embassies) with former hostile countries shows a sense of regularity. It is noteworthy that in these cases, the parliament did not give any official approval either prior to or after normalizing relations, only independently expressing its position or making legislation after the normalization of relations in most instances. A well-known example of this is President Nixon’s surprise announcement to normalize relations between the U.S. and China in 1979, which was met by the retaliation of a congress that then subsequently passed the Taiwan Relations Act.


In fact, the deterioration of U.S.-North Korean negotiations during the Trump administration showed the infeasibility of the so-called “Big Deal.” However, the so-called phased approach also has certain drawbacks, as it takes a long time and would be difficult to systematically implement if a lack of trust between the U.S. and North Korea reemerges during the process. To conclude, any future agreement should certainly include more steps than a “Big Deal” but should simultaneously take a more audacious approach than a phased one. In other words, any meaningful advancements in U.S.-North Korea relations should be a step ahead of simply establishing liaison offices between Washington and Pyongyang. Again, for sure, to highly institutionalize an extended deterrence mechanism is still a top priority. At the same time, both South Korea and the U.S. should urgently discuss what favors the two allies could realistically offer as an exchange for North Korea’s cooperation. The audacious approach should be bold enough and as always, timing is everything. 



Jungkun Seo is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea. He received a Ph.D. and an M.A. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. in Political Science from Seoul National University. Dr. Seo is teaching American Politics, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Party Politics. Prior to joining Kyung Hee University, he was an Assistant Professor (tenure-track) in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington (2007– 2012) and received the teaching awards from both KHU (2015) and UNCW (2009, 2010). His research interests include American politics of foreign policy making, comparative legislative politics and US policy toward East Asia (China, North/South Korea). Dr. Seo has published numerous books including When American Politics Meeting International Relations in 2019 (in Korean) and American Politics and US Asia Policy in 2017 (in Korean). Both books were selected as one of the best books of the year by the National Academy of Sciences in Korea. He has also published research articles for peer-reviewed journals such as Political Science Quarterly, American Politics Research, Party Politics, and Government and Opposition.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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