Five years ago, the outgoing US President Barak Obama advised the in-coming President Donald Trump that North Korea will be the most difficult foreign policy challenge for America. If there had been an occasion for a meeting at the time of Presidential transition President Trump would have categorically claimed the credit for avoiding war with Pyongyang and reducing the North Korean threat.
President Trump took an unprecedented approach to North Korea. Abandoning Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’,[i] the Trump administration adopted a policy that vacillated between “maximum pressure” and “maximum engagement”. This began with the threat of war and stringent sanctions followed by a dramatic turn to diplomatic engagement that witnessed three historic summits between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump’s leadership-level engagement approach triggered a diplomatic opening for North Korea, resulting in Kim Jong-un’s meetings with leaders of South Korea, China and Russia.[ii]
While it is true that Trump’s unprecedented move salvaged the situation from the risk of war and created momentum for diplomacy, it has not fundamentally changed anything. North Korea has maintained its nuclear stockpile and continued to enrich Uranium and advance its nuclear and missile capabilities. The denuclearisation dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang that began after the Singapore Summit in June 2018 had broken off following the failed February 2019 Vietnam Summit. Despite Trump’s claim to have a “great relationship” with Kim Jong-un, his approach could not bridge the diplomatic gulf between Washington and Pyongyang.[iii]
Since mid-2019, North Korea has been busy testing short-range missiles, including submarine-launched ballistic missile. Though President Trump mostly played down the threat of these missile tests, it indeed was a departure from the peace momentum in the Korean Peninsula with North Korea reversing its voluntary moratorium on testing that it announced in 2018. Furthermore, at the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) held in January 2021, Kim Jong-un emphasised a priority to advancing nuclear and missile capability.[iv]
While the Trumpian approach has created the conditions for improvement of inter-Korean relations, the limited progress in the US-North Korea denuclearisation dialogue slowed the momentum in inter-Korea diplomacy and reversed some of the conciliatory measures taken following the inter-Korea Summits in 2018. North Korea blowing up the inter-Korean Liaison Office in June 2020 was a major setback to relations with South Korea.
Perhaps the only relation that benefitted from Trump’s approach has been the North Korea-China equation, which had been in a steady state of deterioration since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012. Since 2018, the ties between the two communist allies have witnessed significant improvement with reciprocal leadership visits. The reset in Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang in the context of US-China strategic rivalry is a signal that reinforces the perception that it is prepared to live with a nuclear North Korea. It also means that the goal of North Korean denuclearisation that in the past motivated US-China cooperation is fast disappearing.
Washington’s “New” North Korea Policy
Unlike Trump, Biden is well versed in foreign and security affairs. Given his experience as Vice President under Obama, it is improbable that the new administration will continue Trump’s policy towards North Korea. During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged that he would follow ‘principled diplomacy’,[v] meaning the return of a conventional bottom-up approach to diplomacy that Trump abandoned in favour of a leadership led appraoch. Few, however, expect the return of Obama’s approach of ‘strategic patience’ as it was ineffective in curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. Biden also suggested his willingness to meet Kim Jong-un but “on the condition that he (Kim) would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity.”[vi] Use of the word “drawing down” instead of “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of the nuclear programme could well be a suggestion of Washington moving away from a maximalist position.
According to the State Department, the Biden administration will adopt a “new approach ... begin through a policy review of the state of play in North Korea..in close consultation and coordination with the Republic of Korea, with Japan, with other allies and partners on ongoing pressure options and potential for future diplomacy”.[vii] The emphasis on close coordination with allies and partners means a departure from the Trump administration’s ‘go it alone’ approach. Considering the COVID-19 situation in the US, it was expected the North Korea issue would be put on the back burner as the new administration prioritise the domestic agenda. However, a recent State Department briefing stated that the North Korean nuclear issue is an “urgent priority for the United States and one that we are committed to addressing together with our allies.”[viii]
Another aspect that will most likely take some significance together with denuclearisation in the Biden administration’s North Korea policy is human rights. In its approach to North Korea, the Trump administration, unlike the previous US administrations, had ignored the human rights discussion. Trump did not even nominate a candidate for North Korean human rights envoy, a position within the State Department established in 2004 by Congress. The Trump administration’s refusal to work with the United Nations to pursue human rights in North Korea was not surprising given Washington’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018.[ix]Any potential return of the human right agenda to Washington’s approach to North Korea will receive push back from Pyongyang and can run into conflict with Seoul, which currently pursues a policy that prioritises engagement with Pyongyang.[x]
Back to Square One
Despite President Trump’s claim that there is “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” and he had “largely solved the problem”[xi], the Biden administration is inheriting a relatively less isolated and more advanced nuclear and missile capable North Korea. Securing three meetings with President Trump, a feat previous North Korean leadership could never achieve, Kim Jong-un improved his political legitimacy and gained the confidence to take bold diplomatic steps.
Even if North Korean nuclear weapons were perceived as less threatening based on Trump’s personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, that approach is changing with a new administration. If the past is any guide, Pyongyang will likely return to its tried and tested tactics of manufacturing a crisis by conducting a series of missile or nuclear tests to demonstrate its advanced capability to get Washington’s attention and then seek negotiation. Unlike in the past, it will be challenging for the Biden administration to bring China on board to implement stringent sanctions, given the growing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
The Biden administration’s challenge would be to avoid and learn from the mistakes of the past. Obama’s strategic patience’ or wait and watch approach essentially meant giving space for North Korea to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities without engaging. On the other hand, the Trump administration orchestrated reality show like Summits with North Korea without the required ground level diplomatic work for a meaningful agreement was equally futile.
*Dr. Jojin V. john, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
[i] The policy of ‘strategic patience’ essentially mean a dual track approach that kept Washington open for engagement with Pyongyang for its good behavior while seeking to impose sanctions for its bad behavior. See, ChangsopPyon (2011), "Strategic Patience or Back to Engagement? Obama's Dilemma on North Korea", North Korean Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (FALL 2011), pp. 73-81.
[ii] Jojin V. John, "Korean Peninsula at the Crossroads: Perceptional Gaps and Emerging Challenges to Diplomacy", ICWA Issue Brief, November 06, 2019/show_content.php?lang=1&level=3&ls_id=4815&lid=2827, Accessed on February 22, 2021.
[iii] "Kim-Trump personal relations 'not enough to resume' US-North Korea talks", BBC, January 11, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51074956 , Accessed on February 23, 2021.
[iv] Duyeon Kim, "What North Korea’s Party Congress means for Biden and the world", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, February 12, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/02/what-north-koreas-party-congress-means-for-biden-and-the-world/, Accessed on February 22, 2021.
[v]"Special contribution by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden", Yonhap News Agency, October 30, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201030000500325, Accessed on February 22, 2021.
[vi]"Biden says will meet N.K. leader if he agrees to draw down nuclear capacity", Yonhap News, Ocober 23, 2010, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201023003251325, Accessed on February 22, 2021.
[vii]https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-february-9-2021/, Accessed on February 22, 2021.
[viii]"U.S. says North Korea an urgent priority for the United States", Reuters, February 13, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-idUSKBN2AC2EK, Accessed on February 22, 2021.
[ix]Robert R. King, "A North Korean Human Rights Agenda for the Biden Administration", CSIS, December 15, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/north-korean-human-rights-agenda-biden-administration, Accessed on February 23, 2021.
[x]Ahn Sung-mi, “Biden’s NK human rights agenda could cause clash with Seoul”, Korea Herald, February 13, 2021, www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210210000869, Accessed on February 23, 2021.
[xi]"Trump declares North Korea 'no longer a nuclear threat'", CNN, June 13, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/13/politics/trump-north-korea-nuclear-threat/index.html, Accessed on February 23, 2021.