SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – Donald Trump approached North Korea with threats of “fire and fury”, followed by summits designed for television with his leader, Kim Jong Un.
For Barack Obama, it was a “strategic patience”, which tried to use constant economic and military pressure to convince Pyongyang to resume talks.
Now President Joe Biden is attempting what US officials describe as common ground between the approaches of his predecessors, who they say failed to meet US goals.
Last week, White House officials unveiled the outline of Biden’s strategy in North Korea, after a months-long internal review.
As part of Biden’s plan, the United States will keep pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but will also continue talks – and possibly even interim deals – to help push forward. this goal.
The White House confirms that it has completed its review of North Korean politics.
– William Gallo (@GalloVOA) April 30, 2021
Depending on how the strategy unfolds, it could represent a significant shift in how the United States deals with one of its most pressing foreign policy challenges.
A new approach?
Most US administrations have avoided a gradual approach to denuclearization, fearing that North Korea would cheat on any interim deal and thus gain precious time to develop its nuclear program.
But the Biden administration appears to be leaving the door open for improved relations, even in the absence of a large deal with North Korea.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that the United States would pursue “a calibrated and practical approach” that will explore “options for diplomacy.”
Talk to The Washington Post, a US official went further, saying the US could offer North Korea unspecified “relief” in return for “special measures”, while retaining “the ultimate goal of denuclearization.”
“If the Trump administration was everything, Obama was nothing for nothing … it’s something in the middle,” the US official told the newspaper.
From now on, Biden’s policy could be characterized as a “something for something” approach, joked John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
I love that. They might dismiss the labels, but for now they call it the “Something for Something” strategy. pic.twitter.com/kAsKWlpmMr
– John Delury (@JohnDelury) April 30, 2021
What is the problem?
While it is not clear what “something” would offer on either side, there are many options.
During Trump’s Kim outreach, U.S. officials reportedly considered declaring the Korean War a formal end, a symbolic step that would signal a less pressure-oriented approach. The two parties also considered establishing liaison offices in their respective countries.
US officials could also try to formalize North Korea’s pause on nuclear and long-range missile testing. Or they could try to strike a more comprehensive interim agreement to limit arms development in North Korea.
North Korea is estimated to have enough fissile material for dozens of nuclear weapons, but analysts say Pyongyang still needs to do more testing before it can reach the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.
North Korea is not interested
At the moment, it does not appear that North Korea wants to engage in negotiations.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea has undertaken one of the most extreme lockdowns in the world, even sealing its borders with China, its economic lifeline. North Korea says there are no coronavirus cases in the country, but these claims are widely disputed.
Although little is known about the pandemic situation in North Korea, it plays a major role in when Pyongyang chooses to engage with the United States, says Park Won-gon, professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“We all know that North Korea simply has no way of dealing with this pandemic,” he said, noting that the issue is a major security threat to the Kim regime.
On Sunday, a senior North Korean diplomat attacked Biden, calling Washington’s diplomatic efforts a disguise of his “hostile policies.”
The North Korean diplomat also expressed frustration that the United States and South Korea recently conducted joint military exercises. In a separate statement, a North Korean official challenged the Biden administration’s recent criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record.
Step by step
North Korea has boycotted talks with the United States since 2019. At a summit in February that year, Trump rejected an offer that North Korea would dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for the lifting. of most sanctions by the United States.
Trump preferred a broader deal in which the United States would lift all sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s complete dismantling of its nuclear program.
A growing number of former U.S. officials and other Korean observers have criticized this all-or-nothing approach, saying it may be necessary to focus on reducing rather than eliminating the threat.
As Biden Mulls in North Korea, urgent arms control approach
The United States has long demanded the complete denuclearization of North Korea, even as a wide range of Korean observers have agreed that this would likely never happen.
While the Biden administration signals “a step-by-step diplomatic engagement,” it all depends on how North Korea reacts in the coming months, says Leif-Eric Easley, another professor at Ewha University.
“If Pyongyang agrees to talks at the operational level, the starting point for negotiations would be a freeze on North Korean testing and development of nuclear capabilities and delivery systems,” Easley said. “If, on the other hand, Kim avoids diplomacy and opts for provocative tests, Washington will likely expand sanctions enforcement and military exercises with its allies. ”
Other challenges ahead?
Last month, North Korea conducted a short-range missile test, its first ballistic missile launch in about a year. Pyongyang has hinted that bigger tests may be ahead.
It’s unclear how Biden would react to such launches. Biden criticized last month’s test as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and warned of more responses if North Korea escalates.
“The Biden administration has made it clear that the era of love letters and theatrical summits as a starting point for diplomacy is over,” said Jean Lee, director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center in Washington DC.
“Hopefully the administration will build on the diplomatic progress made over the past four years instead of giving up everything since the Trump years – but come up with a long-term strategy that takes into account all stakeholders in the region,” she adds.
Will Biden be proactive?
But some in the region, particularly South Korea, fear North Korea may not be a priority for Biden, who is focusing on issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and relaunching the deal. Iranian nuclear power plant.
“This is a negative agenda item for Biden because there is low return and high risk,” says Kim Joon-hyung, chancellor of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, which trains South Korean diplomats. Korean.
In Kim’s view, the Biden administration should be proactive and meet with North Koreans as soon as possible. He also recommends that the United States be open to compromise, noting that North Korea’s nuclear program grows every year.
“If the United States wants it all or nothing,” he said, “then it still can’t get anything.”