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Biden’s strategy in North Korea is a far cry from Trump’s flashy diplomacy

And at a press conference here on Saturday, he didn’t seem particularly keen on a handshake with the North Korean despot.

“It would depend on his sincerity and seriousness,” Biden said when asked if he would be willing to meet Kim.

The days of glitzy leadership summits and other photo ops that defined President Donald Trump’s diplomatic forays with North Korea and elevated Kim appear to be over for now. The same goes for attempts at a big bargain, an “all for all” denuclearization agreement.

Instead, Biden administration officials are focusing on shows of strength and unity with South Korea and what they call a “calibrated and practical approach,” seeking incremental progress toward denuclearization. through sustained diplomatic engagements. And Kim, once again isolated on the world stage and unable to grasp and smile with a US president, looks set to reach for a headline-grabbing intercontinental ballistic missile test while Biden is in the region instead. .

A year after the Biden administration completed a review of its North Korean policy, Biden’s first trip to South Korea now puts him at the center of the new, yet unproven strategy.

While a potential missile launch while Biden is in the region could escalate tensions, observers have also seen a major coronavirus outbreak in North Korea as offering a potential, albeit narrow, diplomatic opening — if not with the United States. , so at least with South Korea.

Test Biden’s response

Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said the United States was “prepared” for the possibility of a North Korean missile or nuclear test while Biden is in the region and the president could therefore adjust the military position of the United States in the region.

“If anything happens, it will only serve to reinforce and highlight that the United States is going to be committed to the Indo-Pacific, is going to be a staunch ally and is going to resist and not back down from anything. act of aggression,” Sullivan told reporters aboard an Air Force One bound for South Korea.

To date, the president’s strategy has yet to culminate in a single working meeting with North Korea in the year that has passed since the administration completed its review of U.S. policy on the matter. regard to the hermit kingdom, said a senior administration official, adding that “it’s not for lack of trying.” And North Korea has also increased the pace of its ballistic missile testing – launching 15 this year, so far.

“We are obviously worried,” the official said of the tests. “But we remain committed to our fundamental approach, which is that we will do what we need to do on security for us, for our allies, for our deployed forces. And at the same time, we will continue to enforce the Security Council (United Nations) resolutions and urging others and urging others to do the same. But we will continue to reach out to the North and make it clear that we seek diplomacy with them. We seek engagement.

“Unfortunately, so far – I think we have to be honest about this – they haven’t wanted to,” the senior official added.

With diplomacy at a standstill, Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced plans to expand joint military exercises, bolstering a key part of the military cooperation that Trump had sought to end.

Covid in North Korea could be an opportunity for engagement

US officials and North Korea experts have attributed the country’s lack of diplomatic engagement with the United States and other countries in part to the draconian coronavirus lockdown measures the hermit kingdom has put in place throughout the throughout Biden’s tenure.

But news earlier this month of North Korea’s first major publicly acknowledged coronavirus outbreak also raised hopes of a potential opportunity for de-escalation.

While U.S. officials don’t believe the outbreak will hamper North Korea’s ability to conduct a missile test, they have also been watching closely for signs that it may accept South Korean or international help in the fight. against the epidemic.

“The hope is that they will be more willing to engage in Covid-related humanitarian aid and that this could potentially serve as a way to unfreeze a diplomatic track that has been frozen since the failure of the US-Korea summit in Hanoi,” said Patricia Kim. , a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “So I think there is hope there.”

A senior administration official said the United States had previously told North Korea that it was open to engaging in discussions on coronavirus humanitarian assistance, but had had no communication. directly since the last epidemic. Pyongyang has yet to respond to Seoul’s new government’s offer of coronavirus assistance.

A major departure from Trump’s showman diplomacy

Trump’s policy toward North Korea reflected the erratic nature of his presidency. Warned by then-President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in 2016 that Pyongyang would present him with its gravest national security threat, Trump took a belligerent approach to the North and its leader early in his presidency.

From his summer home in New Jersey, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if his provocations continued. He bragged that his “nuclear button” was bigger than Kim’s. And during a speech at the United Nations, he called the dictator “Little Rocket Man”, an insult he devised to reduce his enemy to a caricature.

Yet over time — and, according to Trump, as his rhetoric lured Kim — the policy swung in another direction. After a historic summit in Singapore, the first between a US and North Korean leader, the men exchanged what Trump later called “love letters”. They met again in Hanoi, although those talks broke down due to differences in sanctions relief.

The last time Trump visited Seoul as president, he traveled to the Korean Demilitarized Zone to meet Kim in person, crossing the line with North Korea.

Biden, for his part, will forego a visit to the DMZ altogether, with officials saying he opted for a briefing at Osan Air Force Base instead, having previously visited the DMZ as vice president.

Trump’s efforts appeared to cause a pause in North Korean provocations, with a reduction in missile and nuclear testing. Yet on substance, efforts to convince Kim to halt his nuclear program stalled and ultimately resulted in no progress toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization.

“I think the Biden administration has tried to single out its North Korean policy by arguing that it’s not interested in flashy summits or big deals, but wants to take a practical, calibrated approach to moving forward. towards the complete denuclearization of North Korea,” said Patricia Kim. “I think the blockage, of course, is not so much US policy, but the fact that North Korea seems to have no interest in talking about denuclearization.”

As Trump sought to cultivate Kim as a partner and personal friend, he was skeptical of the need to keep US troops on the Korean Peninsula and imposed high tariffs on South Korean products, measures that have caused deep anxiety in Seoul and the region about the American engagement. to safety.

Biden has taken a much more traditional approach, welcome news in the countries he is visiting this week.

“There is clearly a sigh of relief after Biden came to the region and spoke about alliances in a language the allies understood. They just didn’t understand, didn’t understand what Trump said. “, said Victor Cha, President of Korea. at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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