If there is one thing that the President of the United States, Joseph Biden, has made clear in his first four months in office, it is that he is not interested in seeking the Nobel Peace Prize over Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. It is not as if the 46th President does not look for peace in the Korean peninsula; but that his administration and top policy advisors have made it clear that they are not too anxious to walk through in an arena packed with political landmines.
President Donald Trump made no bones of the fact that he was indeed looking for a deal with Pyongyang and in the process walking away with a potential global award; but that proved very elusive in his three meetings with Chairman Kim, including one in the demilitarized zone. At the end of the day, President Trump realized that he was not going to pull off what three of his predecessors –Barack Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton—had tried and came away empty-handed.
President Trump looked for that Grand Bargain that was simply not there: Washington wanted Kim Jong Un to dismantle all of his nukes and facilities without anything in return. Pyongyang was looking at demilitarization of the peninsula as well as lifting of sanctions, if not fully, but in a phased fashion. Hawks in the Trump administration like National Security Advisor John Bolton who were dead set against Washington even talking to Chairman Kim would allow nothing of the kind. Trump had finally to resign himself to the fact that while he may have broken the ice for the first time in about seven decades, the champagne bottles were not going to be uncorked.
People in the know of things of the Korean peninsula have seen the then vice-president Joseph Biden staying with eight years of President Barack Obama’s Strategic Patience with Pyongyang — playing out the waiting game and making sure that North Korea does not get off the bend. While Chairman Kim appeared more belligerent than his father and grandfather, Washington was keen to ensure that the line was not crossed with respect to the enhancement of his arsenals or threatening South Korea and Japan. If the administration of George Bush insisted on changed nuances from Pyongyang for any reciprocity from Washington, President Obama kept open the prospects of engagement for “good” behavior and sanctions for “bad” overtures. The strategic patience of President Obama did not get very far: North Korea not only enhanced its nuclear capabilities but also went the Uranium enrichment route.
President Biden is no stranger to ways of the Hermit Kingdom as North Korea is called. As a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice-president, Biden has seen the likes of the dynastic leaderships that seemed to get only progressively worse politically and strategically for its allies in East Asia. Biden may not exactly be a household name in North Korea but has faced the wrath of the regime in Pyongyang, especially during the time of last November 2020 election campaigning. Seemingly insulted for variously characterizing Chairman Kim as a tyrant and a thug, Pyongyang called Biden a “rabid dog” that “needs to be beaten to death with a stick”; and as a “fool with low IQ”. Biden in characteristic fashion did not respond knowing that Pyongyang had stooped to other lower levels—calling President Barack Obama a “monkey” and President Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard”.
In a first indication that the Biden administration has completed with its review of North Korea policy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the policy revolves around diplomacy. “We have a very clear policy that centres on diplomacy… It is up to North Korea to decide whether it wants to engage or not on that basis”, Blinken said in London recently after a meeting of the G-7 Foreign Ministers. The problem for President Biden is that he will have to bring along two critical allies in Asia—South Korea and Japan—who have differing positions on North Korea. While Seoul favors easing sanctions and enhanced economic engagement, Tokyo is for a hard-line approach keeping in mind that North Korean missiles frequently end up in Japanese waters, an issue that is of domestic headache for policymakers.
At the same time, the Biden administration should also be aware of the fact that any worthwhile solution to the North Korean impasse must be a two-way street. Asking Kim Jong Un to get rid of his nukes, missiles and facilities, but addressing none of his concerns, will not work. North Korea is perhaps the most sanctioned country in the world; and hence the issue of lifting sanctions is not just bilateral involving the United States but also multi-lateral that includes the United Nations and the European Union. The focus must be on a phased or calibrated way out of the problem with Kim Jong Un having to be careful enough not to up the ante during the process.
In all the tough posturing on China, Washington will need to rope in this critical East Asian giant for the simple reason that it is the only country that still has “some” leverage with North Korea. Beijing maintains that it is abiding by the multi-lateral sanctions regime, but it is an open secret that Pyongyang is able to get away only with assistance from China. At the same time, it will be naïve to overplay China’s influence or in any simplistic assumption that Kim Jong Un is a puppet who will mechanically oblige orders from Beijing. In fact, recently China’s Ambassador to the United States, Zhang Jun, put out the hope that President Biden will give importance to diplomacy and dialogue instead of “extreme pressure” to stop North Korea’s nuclear program and denuclearization of the peninsula.
“Without tackling the security and peace issue properly, definitely, we do not have the right environment for our efforts for the denuclearization”, the top diplomat maintained.
A former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations, the author is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.