Biden’s strategy toward North Korea is a long way from Trump’s flashy diplomacy

During a press conference here on Saturday, he did not seem particularly keen on shaking hands with the North Korean despot.

“It will depend on whether he is honest and whether he is serious,” Biden said when asked if he would like to meet Kim.

The days of captivating summits between the two leaders and other photographs that outlined President Donald Trump’s diplomatic travels with North Korea and the rising Kim appear to be over for now. So are the attempts to reach a grand bargain, the “all-for-all” nuclear disarmament agreement.

Instead, Biden administration officials focus on what they call a “calibrated, pragmatic approach,” seeking incremental progress toward denuclearization through continued diplomatic engagements. And Kim, once again isolated on the world stage and unable to catch and smile an American president, appears poised to arrive at an ICBM test making headlines while Biden is in the region instead.

One year after the Biden administration finished reviewing its North Korea policy, Biden’s first trip to South Korea now places him at the center of a new, as-yet-unproven strategy.

Although a possible missile launch while Biden is in the region could escalate tensions, observers have also seen the coronavirus outbreak in North Korea present a potential, albeit narrow, diplomatic opportunity — if not with the United States, then at least with South Korea. .

Biden’s response test

Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said the US was “prepared” for the possibility of North Korea conducting a missile or nuclear test while Biden was in the region, and that the president could accordingly adjust the US military posture in the region.

“If something happens, it will only reinforce and highlight the fact that the United States will engage in the Indo-Pacific, will be a strong ally, will stand up to it and will not back down from any aggressive actions,” Sullivan told reporters aboard South Korean Air Force One.

So far, the president’s strategy has not resulted in one working meeting with North Korea in the year since the administration completed a review of US policy toward the rebellious kingdom, a senior administration official said, adding that “it was not out of a lack of trying.” North Korea has also sped up its ballistic missile tests — launching 15 tests this year, so far.

“Obviously we are concerned,” said the person in charge of the tests. “But we remain committed to our basic approach, which is that we will do what we need to do on security for ourselves, our allies, and our forces deployed. At the same time, we will continue to enforce (UN) Security Council resolutions and urge and pressure others to do the same. But we We will continue to communicate with the North and make it clear that we seek diplomacy with them. We seek engagement.”

“Unfortunately, until now – I think we have to be honest about this – they haven’t been ready for that,” the senior official added.

COVID in North Korea could be an opportunity to participate

US officials and North Korean experts have commented, in part, on the country’s lack of diplomatic engagement with the United States and other countries, on the strict coronavirus-induced lockdown measures that the pariah kingdom has pursued throughout Biden’s tenure in office.

But the news earlier this month of the first publicly acknowledged major outbreak of the coronavirus in North Korea also raised some hope of a possible de-escalation opportunity.

While US officials did not believe the outbreak would impede North Korea’s ability to conduct a missile test, they also watched carefully for signs that it might accept South Korean or international assistance to combat the outbreak.

“The hope is that they will be more willing to engage in humanitarian assistance related to Covid and that this can serve as a way to thaw the diplomatic track that has been frozen since the failed US-North Korea summit in Hanoi,” Patricia Kim said. , fellow David M. Rubinstein at the Brookings Institution. “So, I think there is hope.”

A senior administration official said the United States had previously told North Korea that it was willing to participate in discussions about coronavirus relief aid, but that it had not had any direct contact since the recent outbreak. Pyongyang has yet to respond to the new government in Seoul’s offer to help fight the coronavirus.

A big shift from Trump’s showmanship diplomacy

Trump’s policy toward North Korea has reflected the volatile nature of his presidency. After President Barack Obama warned in the Oval Office in 2016 that Pyongyang would present him with the gravest national security threat, Trump adopted a hostile approach toward North Korea and its leader in the early days of his presidency.

From his summer home in New Jersey, Trump threatened to “shoot and rage” at North Korea if its provocations continued. He boasted that his “nuclear button” was bigger than Kim’s. During a speech at the United Nations, he referred to the dictator as “Little Rocket Man,” an insult he devised to turn his opponent into a caricature.

However, over time – and from Trump’s point of view, as his rhetoric attracted Kim – politics has swung wildly in another direction. After a historic summit in Singapore, the first between a US and North Korean leader, the men exchanged what Trump later called “love letters”. They met again in Hanoi, although those talks broke down due to disagreements over sanctions relief.

The last time Trump visited Seoul as president, he traveled to the Korean Demilitarized Zone to meet Kim in person, crossing the line of demarcation in North Korea.

For his part, Biden will forgo visiting the DMZ entirely, with officials saying he has chosen instead to give a briefing at Osan Air Force Base, having already toured the DMZ as vice president.

Trump’s efforts appeared to have halted North Korean provocations, while reducing missile and nuclear tests. Objectively speaking, however, efforts to persuade Kim to halt his nuclear program stalled and ultimately yielded no progress toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization.

“I think the Biden administration has tried to differentiate its North Korea policy by demonstrating that it is not interested in flashy summits or big deals, but does want a pragmatic and constructive approach toward the complete denuclearization of North Korea,” said Patricia Kim. “I think the call hanging, of course, is not so much US policy, but the fact that North Korea seems absolutely uninterested in talking about denuclearization.”

While Trump has sought to develop Kim as a partner and personal friend, he has expressed skepticism about the need to keep US forces on the Korean peninsula and impose strict tariffs on South Korean goods, moves that have caused deep concern in Seoul and the broader region about US commitment. for security.

Biden has adopted a much more traditional approach, which is welcome news in the countries he’s visiting this week.

“Obviously there was a sigh of relief after Biden came to the region and talked about alliances in a language that allies understood. They didn’t understand, they didn’t understand, what Trump was saying,” said Victor Cha, President of Korea. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Leave a Comment