[Correspondent’s Column] What would Biden’s North Korea policy look like?

Posted on : 2021-02-19 17:19 KST Modified on : 2021-02-19 17:19 KST
US President Joe Biden (AFP/Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden (AFP/Yonhap)

As of Feb. 20, one month after Joe Biden's inauguration as US president, his administration appears to be accelerating its North Korea policy review. Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, along with the two countries' top diplomats, defense officials and national security officials, have spoken on the phone, and American officials have also met face-to-face with the South Korean ambassador in Washington. I'm told that the policy review won't take long.

The Biden administration's policy toward North Korea and the North's reaction to that policy will determine whether the Korean Peninsula starts moving toward peace once again — a process that broke down after the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019 — or whether it sees a return of the treacherous tensions and discord that lasted until 2017.

Judging from the remarks made thus far by Biden and his foreign policy and national security advisors, we can't rule out the possibility of Biden opting for a coercive approach grounded in his rejection of Trumpian policy.

While he was running for president, Biden criticized Trump for easing economic pressure, calling off military exercises, and disregarding human rights issues in his pursuit of photo ops with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Biden and the Democratic Party mainstream tend to think that Trump's three summits with Kim only legitimized the North Korean regime and emboldened Kim.

The Biden administration officials responsible for the Korean Peninsula are all experts with an unmatched knowledge of North Korea. There's Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Wendy Sherman, the nominee for Deputy Secretary of State; and Sung Kim, acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. At the White House, there's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific coordinator for the National Security Council.

But these officials' expertise cuts both ways. It could help them reduce the time needed for the policy review, but it could also bias them toward a more heavy-handed approach to North Korea, given their skepticism about Pyongyang's willingness to denuclearize.

But as long as we're stuck in the past, we can't move forward. Considering the way Biden prioritizes expert consensus and his vociferous criticism of Trump's personal diplomacy, it's worth taking a look at the Korean Peninsula experts' opinions in Washington.

Biden's intensely emotional rejection of Trump aside, lessons have obviously been learned from Trump and Kim's ventures and failures. One lesson is that North Korea's denuclearization can't be achieved through a handful of summits. Another is that it's unrealistic to demand that North Korea unilaterally give up the nuclear weapons that it regards as its ultimate security guarantee.

Furthermore, it has become clear that in the vicious cycle of provocation, pressure, dialogue and deadlock that repeats with every new US administration, the first two stages in that cycle are a waste of time and energy for both sides. As a result, more people think that the US, while maintaining the long-term goal of denuclearization, should adopt a gradual and simultaneous approach that begins with a modest deal, perhaps swapping the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility for the lifting of some sanctions on the North.

In a column printed at the end of 2020, Frank Aum, a senior expert at the US Institute of Peace, recommended that the Biden administration launch a "bold peace offensive." Aum worked at the Pentagon as a senior advisor on North Korea during the Obama administration.

In order to ease tensions with North Korea, Aum said that the US should take a range of concrete measures, including "a readiness to resume working-level negotiations at any time; a moratorium on US strategic and nuclear asset deployments to the Korean Peninsula; a temporary halt or reduction in the spring military exercises; time-limited, partial sanctions relief; […] and humanitarian and nutritional assistance."

The Biden administration's North Korean policy is more than a binary choice between pressure or dialogue. But depending on which side of that equation Biden emphasizes, his policy toward the North could be a rehash of the "strategic patience" style of pressure applied during Obama's second term, or it could be something that goes beyond the "Perry Process," the comprehensive step-by-step approach followed during Clinton's second term.

It's encouraging that both North Korea and the US have refrained from provocative comments or actions during the US government's policy review, though that may well be due to their domestic struggle against COVID-19. South Korea, North Korea and the US need to put their heads together and cautiously devise a new solution for the Korean Peninsula that is pragmatic and realistic.

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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