Joe Biden’s lack of ambition in finding a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea has caused some South Koreans to miss Donald Trump’s flamboyant summit.
The Biden administration has taken a “calibrated, hands-on approach” to North Korea, claiming it was willing to engage in diplomacy without preconditions once Pyongyang was ready.
But observers in Seoul and Washington say a reluctance to formulate proposals and a lack of commitment at the highest level indicate a desire to manage rather than solve the North Korean issue, even as Kim Jong Un’s missile defenses and nuclear programs improves.
“The government wouldn’t say it that way, but their policy toward North Korea is really one of benign neglect,” said Sue Mi Terry, director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former CIA. analyst.
“They seem to have given up hope of a breakthrough, and for completely understandable reasons,” adding that the government’s focus has been on China.
When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US mainland in 2017, Trump declared he would rain down “fire and fury” on the East Asian nation.
After a period of acute tension and bellicose rhetoric that policymakers in both Seoul and Washington feared could lead to war, the two leaders met in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019. The summits are turning America’s traditional approach to the Korean peninsula on its head.
Their meetings were accompanied by a series of inter-Korean summits in 2018 that saw a historic handshake between Kim and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, at the demarcation line separating the two Koreas.
“There was a very strong sense of possibility, even euphoria in Seoul at the time,” said Ankit Panda, a North Korean weapons expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Everyone thought Kim Jong Un would come to town. There was a sense that South Korea was on the front lines of history.”
But the process came crashing down in Hanoi over disagreements over the lifting of sanctions and the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program. Kim has not had any talks since, his isolation was exacerbated by the lockdown he imposed on his country in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For Biden officials, the failure of Trump’s North Korea gamble justifies their low-key approach.
“We have no hostile intentions towards” [North Korea] and be open to meeting with them without preconditions,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
“We hope that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will respond positively to our outreach. To date, however, we have not received a substantive response from the DPRK to our offer to comply.”
A senior Western government official said: “Much of the criticism of Americans comes from people who think the key to solving the North Korean problem lies in finding the magic formula that will suddenly satisfy the North Koreans.
“It’s not up to the rest of us to chase after the North Koreans, especially if they haven’t given any sign that they want to come to the table — we’re not in the game just trying to make Kim Jong Un happy.” to make.”
But the US insistence that the ball be in Kim’s court has irritated members of the Moon government. It has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the US to lift sanctions and declare a formal end to the Korean War in a bid to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
“The US position is one of stable management and the Korean government is losing patience,” said Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute think tank and former special adviser to President Moon. “We have urged the US government to send out positive signals; it is only natural that North Korea will not respond to empty proposals.”
A member of the South Korean president’s inner circle told the The Washington City Times: “The Biden administration pretends to care about our proposals, but has not yet agreed to them.”
In September, the chairman of South Korea’s ruling Democratic party said that “although the Trump administration had many problems, the Biden administration must continue the policy of the previous administration, which sought to solve the problems with North Korea by through dialogue”.
Data from Pew Global Indicators shows that South Korean support for Trump’s policies in North Korea reached 78 percent in 2019.
“Despite doubts about Trump himself, there has been strong bipartisan support for his policy of engagement with North Korea,” said Steven Denney of the University of Vienna, who analyzed the data.
“There is some nostalgia in South Korea for Trump’s maximalist approach: Conservatives miss his ‘maximum pressure’ approach of 2017, while progressives miss the 2018-2019 summit,” Wilson Center’s Terry said.
“Few have any fondness for President Trump personally, and they have been upset about his transactional approach to the alliance with South Korea. But there is a feeling that he has at least tried.”
Analysts said hopes Trump would make a breakthrough may have been an illusion, but the Biden administration couldn’t just dismiss the issue.
Victor Cha, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “They can’t keep saying ‘we’re not Trump, we’re not Obama, we’ll meet anytime, anywhere.’ That’s not a policy, that’s a bumper sticker.”
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong