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Biden Administration to Adopt ‘New Strategy’ on N. Korea

2021-01-28

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The Joe Biden government says that it will come up with a “new strategy” on North Korea. On January 22, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the U.S. had a vital interest in deterring North Korea and would adopt a new strategy. The White House used the expression, “a new approach,” indicating that the Biden government’s North Korea policy will be different from that of the Trump government. Here is political commentator Lee Jong-hoon with more. 


While former president Donald Trump preferred a “top-down” negotiation approach, it is widely expected that Biden will choose a “step-by-step” approach that was taken by the Obama administration. 

Biden will certainly stay away from Trump’s “America First” policy and place more emphasis on cooperation with allies instead. In this respect, the Biden administration is highly likely to adopt a multilateral negotiation format involving its allies, such as the six-party nuclear talks favored by the Obama administration. But the new U.S. government is unlikely to depend entirely on multilateral negotiations, which were considered unsuccessful. I think it will use both multilateral and bilateral talks. 


Jen Psaki also said that the new approach would begin with a thorough policy review. This is in line with Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s remarks that the U.S. would review its entire approach and policy toward North Korea. Judging from these comments, it seems that the new U.S. administration has yet to formulate a specific policy. For that reason, some predict that it may take months for the U.S. to set a concrete policy direction. 


Some others, on the other hand, say that the U.S. will quickly finalize its position and involve itself in North Korea-related issues as early as possible. They believe that any provocation from Pyongyang before the U.S. devises its North Korea policy will freeze bilateral relations and spoil the mood for their negotiations. 


It looks like the Biden administration is well prepared. Upon inauguration, it issued a number of executive orders. Given that, it may unveil its North Korea policy more quickly than we think. I guess the U.S. carefully watched North Korea’s recent party congress and military parade to examine what message the communist regime would deliver and what kinds of new weapons it would reveal. During the party congress, leader Kim Jong-un did not announce a message directly aimed at the U.S.  But he implied that his country could hold negotiations with the U.S. if it is recognized as a nuclear weapons state. The Biden administration will make a full analysis of this part before responding to North Korea. 


Meanwhile, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim has been appointed as Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. He played a key part in nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. under both the Obama and Trump governments. No doubt, he has a deep understanding of the North Korea policy of the previous U.S. governments. His appointment reflects that the Biden administration regards the North Korean nuclear issue as an important diplomatic concern that should be addressed urgently. It also shows that the new U.S. government will accelerate the process of reviewing the policy toward North Korea. 


Sung Kim was deeply engaged in North Korean affairs in the previous U.S. administrations. He served as the top U.S. envoy for the six-party talks and the U.S. ambassador to South Korea. During the time of the Obama administration, he visited North Korea to see the demolition of a cooling tower at its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. Under the Trump government, he held working-level talks with North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. I imagine he will analyze the results of North Korea-U.S. negotiations during the years of both Obama and Trump before making a new proposal. 


On January 23, a North Korean propaganda outlet called “DPRK Today” said that Joe Biden was elected as president in the U.S. It was the first time that North Korea mentioned Biden’s election win, although it did so through a propaganda outlet. North Korea’s state media have yet to announce the country’s official position about Biden’s victory. Some analysts say that North Korea, which depends heavily on China, will respond to the U.S. slowly, while watching how Chinese President Xi Jinping may act. 


North Korea will watch how the Biden administration’s “new strategy” will take shape. Basically, Pyongyang wishes to gain recognition as a nuclear state before doing anything. 

In the process of achieving that goal, it may use China or receive support from its communist ally. 


Many expect that Biden, unlike Trump, will use human rights, labor and environmental issues when carrying out his policy. When dealing with North Korea, he may raise the human rights issue. Some even speculate that the U.S. may extend sanctions on North Korea, taking issue with the humanitarian concern, separately from the nuclear issue. We need to pay attention to how North Korea will react to this part. 


In line with the inauguration of the Biden government in the U.S., South Korean President Moon Jae-in has named the former presidential chief for national security affairs Chung Eui-yong as the new foreign minister. The appointment shows Moon’s strong commitment to reactivating the Korean Peninsula peace process, which has been stalled since the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi. The South Korean president may demand that the U.S. inherit the results of the Trump government as far as the North Korea policy is concerned. But it seems to be difficult for President Biden as well as his foreign policy team to accept the demand. In that case, conflict may arise between Seoul and Washington over their North Korea policy. 


Analysts say that Foreign Minister nominee Chung, who was a key mediator of the Singapore summit between North Korea and the U.S., needs to meet Secretary of State Blinken to convince him of the importance of the establishment of the Korean Peninsula peace process.  


First, South Korea needs to watch the Biden administration’s phased approach when dealing with North Korea and figure out how it is different from its own approach. In the process, Seoul should persuade the U.S. and accept Washington’s demand, if necessary. 


I think South Korea-U.S. relations will proceed more smoothly under the Biden government, compared to during the early stage of the Trump government. Still, South Korea should manage its relations with the U.S. more carefully and elaborately. 


It is important for the Moon Jae-in government to reestablish a relationship with the new U.S. government. The presidential office in Seoul is reportedly pushing for a bilateral summit between Moon and Biden as quickly as possible, considering all possible options available including a non-face-to-face meeting. We hope the governments in South Korea and the U.S. will ensure smooth communication between their leaders and address the North Korean nuclear issue wisely in cooperation. 

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