[Column] Will Biden’s N. Korea policy revert to the “strategic patience” of Obama?

Posted on : 2020-11-13 16:24 KST Modified on : 2020-11-13 16:24 KST
The new administration seems more likely to let S. Korea take the lead in its approach to Pyongyang

Given US President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior and craving for media attention, the countries of Northeast Asia paid particular attention to ceremonial details during his various trips to the region.

Japan researched Trump’s preferences and provided him with meticulously prepared “omotenashi,” or full-service hospitality. When Trump visited Japan last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took him to a golf course and brought along a professional golfer — after brushing up his own skills with some golfing lessons.

When Trump went to China in 2017, the local authorities rolled out the red carpet, emptying the entire 8,704-room Forbidden Palace for his visit. And when Trump visited South Korea last year, officials scrambled to arrange a last-minute meeting at Panmunjom with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Joe Biden, who is expected to be elected the 46th president of the US, probably wouldn’t appreciate the kind of highly customized surprise events that Trump did. Biden’s foreign policy is also likely to be very different from that of the Trump administration.

There’s a world of difference between Biden, who served in the US senate for 36 years and as vice president under Barack Obama for eight years, and Trump, who had zero experience in public office before his inauguration as president.

The foreign policy outlined on Biden’s campaign website is a throwback to the US convention. Biden promises to restore relationships with the US’ traditional friends overseas, giving primacy to bolstering NATO. “We will also strengthen our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Asian democracies,” Biden said in conclusion.

In regard to the North Korean nuclear issue, the website said that Biden “will empower our negotiators and jumpstart a sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others, including China, to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.”

Biden’s statement regarding his Korean Peninsula policy thus far has been nonspecific and familiar. We’ve often seen phrases about relying on the role of China, for example. That has fueled a debate about whether or not Biden will revert to the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration.

The term dates back to 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used it to describe the US government’s approach to North Korea. Over the years, it has been understood to mean that the US won’t make any overtures to North Korea until the North makes the first move toward denuclearization.

Strategic patience has been highly criticized

But critics lambasted the US policy as effectively representing “strategic passivity,” or in other words deliberate disregard of the North Korean nuclear issue. In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry described the American policy not as “strategic patience” but as “strategic impatience” while reconfirming that the US wouldn’t reward North Korea until it took action.

Since the policy of strategic patience has been criticized for various reasons, the Biden administration is unlikely to advocate a return to this policy soon after Biden’s inauguration.

That said, the Korean Peninsula issue probably isn’t one of the top policy priorities for the Biden administration. Biden has a full plate of domestic issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession.

Even if the Biden administration doesn’t recycle the term “strategic patience,” his interest and engagement in the North Korean nuclear issue could gradually wane. Mark Fitzpatrick, former acting deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation in the US State Department, recently told Voice of America that South Korea might take the lead on North Korea early on in the Biden administration because it’s the Moon administration that feels the urgency of that issue.

Given South Korea’s status as a stakeholder on the Korean Peninsula, it will have to make an immense effort to demonstrate the possibility of progress if it wants to encourage the Biden administration to adopt an active policy toward North Korea rather than “strategic patience.”

The push to seize next year’s Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity for dialogue appears to be one such effort.

Cho Ki-weon
Cho Ki-weon

By Cho Ki-weon, head of the international news desk

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

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