During their only meeting, Barack Obama warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be the most pressing problem, setting the new president on a whiplash policy course that went on to lure young leader Kim Jong Un by threat of war. .
Four years later, President Joe Biden is showing no such urgency — and much predictability — even as authoritarian states push forward both rocket launch and rhetoric.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is willing to resume talks without any preconditions, but it also shows little interest in wooing North Korea, which wants to end sweeping sanctions.
“North Korea is still a priority issue for Biden,” said Jenny Towns, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, but it’s also not the sort of scenario.
More proactive diplomacy would open Biden to allegations that either he is rewarding “bad behavior” or that he has gone too far or not too far.
“If you look at how much political capital the administration is willing to spend on this issue, especially after Afghanistan, it’s probably not a lot,” she said.
North Korea said recent tests involving a new hypersonic missile whose speed would be a potential game-changer, and Kim called the US talks offer a “small trick”.
Trump had sought a comprehensive deal with North Korea, with which the United States is technically still at war, but their three meetings failed to produce more than the promises made by Kim on nuclear and long-range missile testing. failed.
Town said, “The last thing Kim Jong Un wants is another high-profile diplomatic failure as he faces economic hardship and Covid-related hardship.”
In an April policy review, the Biden administration said it was prepared to engage and be flexible with North Korea.
This policy appears to differ from Trump’s farce and, at least on paper, Obama’s concept of “strategic patience” or waiting indefinitely until North Korea moves.
Some watchers on North Korea believe that Kim will accept US demands to abandon the nuclear arsenal, seen as the ultimate guarantor of security.
But Jacob Stokes, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the Biden administration could still negotiate to end provocative behavior such as testing.
“The challenge is whether you can defer the long-term question long enough to make interim progress,” Stokes said.
If North Korea wants to “continue aggressive provocation until the United States and South Korea provide a bunch of unilateral advance concessions as the price of getting to the negotiating table, it is very likely to work.” No,” he said.
North Korea has still taken small steps to de-escalate tensions with South Korea, including restoring a military hotline.
The Biden administration has prioritized allies South Korea and Japan and supported the efforts of the South’s Dovish President Moon Jae-in.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that he supports any effort by South Korea that “may reduce the risks”, even if the United States is prepared to take on North Korea before the UN Security Council. .
looking for new ways
Ken Goge, who directs the adversarial analysis program at the CNA Research Organization, said North Korea is pursuing a two-track approach of increasing stakes with the United States, while hoping South Korea can step up diplomacy.
“North Korea has a game plan – to wean the US off strategic patience and give them sanctions relief on the table. That’s why they reject unconditional talks,” Gouge said.
He said that previous administrations – “for reasons entirely related to Trump’s mindset” – had sought a more productive way to engage North Korea, but ultimately failed to focus on pressure rather than incentives.
He feared that a Biden administration full of seasoned policymakers “won’t think out of the box.”
“For the past 40-50 years, we’ve framed this problem as a bilateral, black-and-white zero-sum game on the Korean peninsula – you win, we lose, we win, you lose. That’s where we are now.”
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