During their only meeting, Barack Obama warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be the most pressing issue, sending the new president on a policy roller coaster that ranged from threatening war to courting Kim Jong Un, the young leader of North Korea.
Four years later, President Joe Biden shows no such urgency – and is far more predictable – even as the authoritarian state ramps up both rocket launches and rhetoric.
The Biden administration has stated repeatedly that it is willing to resume talks without preconditions, but it is also uninterested in enticing North Korea, which wants an end to harsh sanctions.
North Korea for Biden is “still a priority issue but also a no-win kind of scenario,” said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.
More proactive diplomacy would open Biden to accusations either that he is rewarding “bad behavior” or that he went too far or not far enough.
“If you’re looking at how much political capital is the administration willing to spend on this issue, especially after Afghanistan, it’s probably not very high,” she said.
North Korea said recent tests included a new hypersonic missile, whose speed would be a potential game-changer, and Kim called the US offer of talks a “petty trick.”
Trump had sought a wide-ranging agreement with North Korea, with which the United States remains technically still at war, but his three meetings failed to produce more than promises by Kim to hold off on nuclear and long-range missile testing.
“The last thing Kim Jong Un is going to want is another high-profile diplomatic failure at a time when they’re having economic hardships and Covid-related hardship,” Town said.
– Small steps? –
In an April policy review, the Biden administration said it was willing to engage North Korea and be flexible.
The policy appeared to be different both from Trump’s pageantry and, at least on paper, from Obama’s concept of “strategic patience,” or waiting indefinitely until North Korea budges.
Few North Korea watchers believe that Kim will accept US demands to give up the nuclear arsenal, seen as an ultimate guarantor of security.
But Jacob Stokes, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the Biden administration could still negotiate an end to provocative behavior such as tests.
The challenge “is can you shelve the long-term question long enough to make interim progress,” Stokes said.
If North Korea wants to keep up “aggressive provocations until the United States and South Korea provide a bunch of unilateral upfront concessions as the price of even getting to the negotiating table, that’s very unlikely to work,” he said.
North Korea has nonetheless taken small steps to ease tensions with South Korea, including restoring a military hotline.
The Biden administration has put a priority on allies South Korea and Japan and backed efforts by the South’s dovish president, Moon Jae-In.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday he supported any South Korean efforts that can “reduce the risks,” even as the United States prepared to take North Korea before the UN Security Council.
– Looking for new ways –
Ken Gause, who directs the adversary analytics program at the CNA research organization, said North Korea appeared to be following a two-track approach of raising the stakes with the United States while hoping South Korea can push diplomacy forward.
“North Korea has a game plan — to push the US off strategic patience and to get them to put sanctions relief on the table. That’s why they reject unconditional talks,” Gause said.
He said that the previous administration — “completely for reasons that had to do with Trump’s mindset” — found a more productive way to engage North Korea, but ultimately failed by focusing on pressure rather than incentives.
He feared that the Biden administration, filled with veteran policymakers, will not “think out of the box.”
“For the last 40-50 years, we have framed this problem as a bilateral, black-and-white zero-sum game on the Korean peninsula — you win, we lose, we win, you lose. That’s where we are now.”