Barack Obama, in his only meeting with Donald Trump, warned him that North Korea risked being his most pressing problem — a brooding Republican billionaire who would then spend his term in office alternating between threats and flattery on young leader Kim Jong Un. Four years later, Joe Biden chose instead to play the patience card.
This is despite the escalation in both the verbal and missile tests of the authoritarian regime in North Korea.
The Democratic Party administration reiterates that it is open to resuming discussions without preconditions, but does not appear willing to materially encourage Pyongyang, which is calling for an end to broad economic sanctions against it.
Jenny Town, a researcher at the Stimson Center, explains that North Korea “remains a priority issue” for Joe Biden, “but it is also a somewhat unsolvable issue.”
If he showed more active diplomacy, Joe Biden would risk being criticized for being rewarded for “bad behavior,” going too far or otherwise not enough, according to her.
“The administration probably isn’t willing to spend a lot of its political capital on this issue, especially after Afghanistan,” Jenny Town said.
After the three meetings between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, which only resulted in unfulfilled promises, the North Korean leader “wants everything but another resounding diplomatic failure at a time when he is facing economic and Covid-related hardships,” she adds. .
The position adopted by Joe Biden, revealed in April at the end of a review of US policy toward Pyongyang, sounded different from that, astonishingly, of Donald Trump, or even of Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” stance, which consists of waiting indefinitely. Named until the North Korean regime surrenders first.
North Korean scholars mostly agree that Kim Jong Un is unlikely to give up his nuclear arsenal, which he sees as the ultimate guarantee of his regime’s security.
But the Biden administration can still negotiate an end to provocative behavior such as the test, according to Jacob Stokes, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
For Stokes, the question is “whether we can leave long-term issues aside long enough to make moderate progress.”
According to the researcher, it is “highly unlikely” that Pyongyang, thanks to its “aggressive provocations”, will obtain concessions from Washington or Seoul even before the start of negotiations.
However, North Korea has taken a few steps toward its southern neighbor in order to ease tensions, agreeing, for example, to restore lines of communication between the two countries.
The Biden administration, which has prioritized its allies in Tokyo and Seoul, supports attempts at appeasement by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Thursday urged all efforts that can “reduce risks,” even as Washington prepares to address the North Korea issue before the UN Security Council on Friday.
“Off the beaten track”
For Ken Goose of the US think tank CNA, North Korea appears to be pursuing a two-speed strategy: raising stakes with the United States with the hope that South Korea can push the diplomatic file forward.
“North Korea has a plan of action to get the United States out of its ‘strategic patience’ and push it to put sanctions relief on the table,” he said.
The Biden administration, which is full of experienced decision makers, may find it difficult to “think outside the box,” he lamented, unlike the administration of Donald Trump who has been able to establish a link – even unsuccessful – with Pyongyang.
“For 40 or 50 years, we’ve seen this problem as a zero-sum game, two-man and mane, on the Korean peninsula — if you win, you lose, if you win, you lose. We’re still there today.”
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