By Hadley Kim
On February 4th, 2021, President Biden outlined the blueprint for US foreign policy under his administration during his remarks on ‘America’s Place in the World’. In the speech, he laid out his plans to tackle international issues such as the military coup in Burma and China’s economic abuses in addition to commitments to strengthen existing alliances with the closest friends of the United States. However, what was noticeably absent was an explicit mention of North Korea and the future of US-North Korean relations.
The absence was striking because President Biden’s strategy towards North Korea is one of the primary issues of interest facing his presidency. Since the Hanoi Summit of February 2019 the relationship between the two countries has largely been stagnant. In the two years since, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has announced new military plans to expand the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Kim announced the deployment of missiles that are said to be of a greater length and diameter than the Hwasong-15 missiles developed in 2017. The new weapons have the potential to allow for multiple warheads that could deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the US. In addition, Kim declared the United States as the country’s primary enemy. Such plans echo events that occurred in 2017, when North Korea’s missile tests cited international disarray and prompted statements by the leaders of the United States, China, and South Korea in condemnation.
In response to this history of tense relations, President Biden hinted towards the North Korean policy to come under his presidency in the 2020 Presidential debate in October. Then Democratic Party Nominee Biden compared Kim Jong-Un to Adolf Hitler and likened President Trump’s North Korean policies to that of appeasement in the years leading up to the Second World War. Though these comments alone were not enough to gauge a proper estimate on Biden’s approach to North Korea, Biden’s political career, and his tenure as Vice President from 2008 to 2016, might.
During Biden’s time as Vice President, President Obama followed a policy of strategic patience, where the United States gradually escalated sanctions imposed on the Northeast Asian nation with little to no success. In addition, the Obama administration refused to engage in negotiations with North Korea until Kim made the first move towards denuclearization, while cooperating with allies such as South Korea and Japan to pressure North Korea. There was also a significant effort to force North Korea to return to the Six-party talks escalating economic sanctions on the impoverished nation. In regards to North Korea’s closest ally, China, the Obama Administration was unable to convince China to diplomatic pressure against North Korea. Furthermore, in response to the increasing number of nuclear tests, the administration deployed its strategic assets over South Korea in the form of bombers, fighter jets, and submarines. This was due to the fact that the Obama administration largely understood North Korea’s development of the nuclear arsenal as a threat. However, Biden’s Vice Presidency eventually concluded not only with greater tensions between the two nations, but also without any concrete path for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Whether Biden would be willing to come to the table or remain passive is left unseen. While Biden opened up to the possibility of a meeting with Kim “on the condition that [Kim] would down his nuclear capacity” during the 2020 Presidential debate, the history of the Democratic Party speaks for itself. The party’s approach to the North Korean problem has mostly been a traditional step-by-step approach, one founded on increasing sanctions and engaging in long periods of waiting. Thus, under Biden, the United States is once again expected to provide small concessions every time North Korea reaches a milestone on its path toward denuclearization. At the same time, Biden seems to be following the convention by consulting closely with its allies, South Korea and Japan, while looking to Beijing to play a crucial role in negotiating with North Korea.
This bears small similarities to President Trump’s policy towards North Korea, which placed emphasis on China’s role. At the same time, it contrasts to President Trump’s interactions with the North Korean leader, which was largely categorized to be strategic accountability, revolving around maximum pressure and engagement with the regime. While similar to the previous administrations in its prioritization of sanctions over negotiations, Trump’s policy differed by including a clause of conditional engagement with Kim. Trump’s attendance of two summits with Kim to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in 2018 and 2019 in addition to a joint summit with South Korea in 2019 provided evidence of this contrast. Furthermore, the Trump administration also labeled the North Korean problem as a top priority for foreign relations, while the Obama administration was otherwise occupied with the burgeoning Iraninan nuclear problem. Despite these differences, though President Trump deviated from convention, the end result was not much different, with tensions between the United States and North Korea reaching another high.
This is the North Korea Biden inherits, and whether his approach has changed during the past four years away from the White House remains to be seen. It is also up for discussion whether Biden will view North Korea’s announcement of military plans as a cry for attention or a legitimate threat to national security.Therefore, at the present moment, the question is not who will resolve the North Korean question, but who will make progress is able to stick.
And we can only wait to see if Biden will be the one.