Biden sold on Moon’s North Korea approach

Posted on : 2021-05-03 17:10 KST Modified on : 2021-05-03 17:10 KST
Washington’s new strategy toward Pyongyang will likely reflect the “gradual and phased” approach of Seoul
Then-US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sign a joint statement following their Singapore summit on June 12, 2018. (Yonhap News)
Then-US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sign a joint statement following their Singapore summit on June 12, 2018. (Yonhap News)

The results of the US Joe Biden administration’s review of its North Korea policy, which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday had been “completed,” can be seen as in large part reflecting the South Korean government’s hopes of restarting the Korean Peninsula peace process.

While the final results of the review have not yet been disclosed, they appear likely to largely reflect the approach of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who believes Pyongyang and Washington should adopt a “gradual and phased” approach to denuclearization, building on their Singapore Joint Statement of June 12, 2018.

To date, Moon has twice clarified his intentions in terms of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy.

The first time was in his New Year’s press conference on Jan. 18, just before the Biden administration took office. In a message to the incoming US administration, Moon said, “The Singapore [Joint] Statement during the [Donald] Trump administration was a very important declaration for the sake of achieving denuclearization and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

“If we can start again from that Singapore Statement and proceed with the dialogue and negotiation toward developing concrete plans, then I believe we can more quickly achieve North Korea-US dialogue and inter-Korean dialogue,” he added.

The second time was in a New York Times interview on April 21, when the US review of North Korea policy was more or less nearing completion. In the interview, he was quoted as calling for a “gradual and phased” approach to denuclearization from the US and North Korea, in which they both offered concessions and incentives “simultaneously.”

The comments in Psaki’s press briefing Friday, combined with quotes from US senior officials in a Washington Post article, suggest that the Biden administration largely accepted Seoul’s idea of using the Singapore Joint Statement as a starting point for dialogue and pursuing denuclearization under a “gradual and phased” approach.

In her press briefing, Psaki said, “[O]ur policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain [like the Trump administration], nor will it rely on strategic patience [like the Barack Obama administration].”

This strongly hints that the Biden administration plans to follow a gradual and phased approach based on “small deals,” representing a compromise between the two previous administrations’ approaches.

In a Washington Post interview Saturday, an unnamed senior US government official said, “Our approach will build on the Singapore agreement and other previous agreements.”

Getting to this outcome does not appear to have been an easy process. A South Korean government official explained, “The Biden administration was originally down on the Singapore agreement because it was reached during the Trump administration, and the [South Korean] government really worked hard [to change its mind].”

To the Biden administration, the Singapore Joint Statement represented one of the legacies of the previous administration to be repudiated. Since the agreement was reached in June 2018, it has also been targeted for attacks by hardliners who see the US as having given up too much ground.

But abandoning the agreement would leave the US faced with diplomatic risks. It would take away its leverage for pressuring North Korea to achieve denuclearization of the peninsula, which is the ultimate aim the US is seeking to achieve.

In the end, the Biden administration made the realistic choice to accept the agreement, in which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a firm pledge before the rest of the world to work toward complete denuclearization of the peninsula.

The next hurdle had to do with the idea of a “phased” approach.

In a March 23 briefing, a senior White House official said that in its review of North Korea policy, the administration had heard a wide range of views from officials in charge of related policy under the Trump administration, along with others involved in North Korea diplomacy since the 1990s, various agencies within the executive branch, and allies such as South Korea and Japan.

The Biden administration was not in a position to choose the same approach as the Obama administration, which ignored the North Korean nuclear issue in the name of “strategic patience,” or the one adopted by the Trump administration, where White House National Security Advisor John Bolton failed with his attempt to resolve the issue all at once by reaching a “big deal.”

In the end, the only remaining option was to pursue a phased approach, representing a compromise between the two extremes.

According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration heard advice from former Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who negotiated with North Korea for some time during the Trump administration. At one point, Biegun seemed ready to accept North Korea’s calls for a phased solution ahead of a North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in late February 2019, only to have it fall through after a last-minute reversal by Bolton.

As the US was finalizing its review, Moon vocally shared his views once again in an interview.

The New York Times interview on April 21 came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to report the final results of the North Korea policy review to Biden. In that interview, Moon strongly asserted that the US needed to adopt a phased approach.

It is unclear how much of an impact the interview had on Washington’s decision — but it is true that the conclusion largely reflected South Korea’s views.

The road toward actual North Korea-US dialogue remains riddled with pitfalls, however. While the Biden administration has adopted a more flexible attitude than expected toward North Korea, the conditions are not yet ripe for meaningful dialogue to begin.

Since the Hanoi summit collapsed in February 2019, North Korea has been proclaiming plans for “regeneration through our own efforts” while issuing radical demands for its regime security, including the suspension of joint South Korea-US military exercises and a ban on the introduction of state-of-the-art strategic assets.

Yet the US has insisted on going ahead with the joint exercises, as a White House senior official confirmed on March 22, and the South Korean government appears to have no intention of delaying the introduction of the state-of-the-art strategic assets that North Korea takes issue with, including the F-35 aircraft.

Ultimately, North Korea appears likely to continue for now with its “self-reliance” approach while watching developments until the US unveils the results of its completed review. It may also opt to pursue strategic provocations if it deems them necessary in the process.

In the Washington Post article, US officials were quoted as saying that the Biden administration’s new North Korea strategy is “not likely to change the regime’s near-term calculus regarding nuclear provocations.”

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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