From Trump to Biden: A changed approach towards North Korea

George Wald once stated, “Nuclear weapons don’t offer us anything but a balance of terror, and a balance of terror is still a terror”. This is something evident in the current geopolitics with some states having possessed these weapons are threatening the world with their use, while others are in a struggle to get one. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the world will remain in a state of continuous fear since there are likely chances of these nuclear weapons being used one day by accident, miscalculation, or design, and such use would certainly be catastrophic. It’s sheer luck that the world has absconded such a cataclysm until now.

Looking into the case of North Korea, it has always been central to US Foreign Policy. Not only because of its key geostrategic position but also because of the Nuclear Proliferation it has been doing. Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, North Korea is incessantly threatening the world with its repeated nuclear testing. Therefore, the US administration has always put the nuclear proliferation of North Korea on top of its policy agenda. Starting with the former president of the US, Donald Trump, his approach towards North Korea has been hallmarked by a blend of engagement and aggression.

Trump has long been criticizing Obama’s approach of “strategic patience” towards North Korea that was based on waiting for the regime to collapse under increased sanctions to achieve complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. In his presidential campaign 2020, Trump accused Obama of leaving him in a difficult position vis-a-vis North Korea. However, analyzing deeply Trump administration despite being more open towards “summit diplomacy” with North Korea, and having arranged three of them in Singapore, Hanoi, and Vienna, failed to bring any significant change. Although, Kim Jong Un himself became the first from his country to have met a sitting US president, and actively partake in summits, yet the two sides failed to bring peace and stability to the region. Interestingly, not even Trump’s aggressive move upon North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in 2017 when he called Kim to meet with “Fire and Fury”, and the threat to attack militarily if it endangered the US, brought any denuclearization of the state.  Instead, North Korea has only advanced its capabilities, tested new missiles with the recent one on 10th October 2020.

Neither is the “Grand Bargain policy” of Trump that was based on security assistance and economic integration if North Korea ensures denuclearization leads to any improvement. Thus, the fierce exchange, military threats coupled with the summit diplomacy didn’t produce lashing outputs. Hopes are now attached with the newly elected President, Joe Biden who has recently announced the completion of the North Korean policy review which the White House through its public statements gave an idea of. Though it is still subject to multiple interpretations, yet an informed guess can be made.

President Joe Biden in a congress session upon completion of his hundred days in office stated that his policies towards North Korea will have a mix of diplomacy and stern deterrence. Thereafter, a statement was made by White House secretary, Jen Psaki who referred to Biden’s “Calibrated Practical approach” as laying between the Strategic Patience and Grand Bargain policies of the former administration. This indicates that the Biden administration is deeming for more engagement with Kim-Jong-Un. Though Trump too has participated in summits with North Korea, yet Biden seems to have more direct talks for negotiation to carve a way out for denuclearization.

Importantly, Biden’s practical approach differs from Trump’s “Fire and Fury” as it suggests multiple responses to Pyongyang’s actions. It could mean US support if North Korea does denuclearization, and improve its human right records. Otherwise, the nuclear testing is to be met with severe sanctions, and US stringent actions to downplay any such threat. Secretary of the state, Antony Blinken clearly stated that “The US will look up to not what North Korea says but what it does too”. This means actions for actions, and any mistaken move would come in the way for North Korea.

The second and most important aspect is Biden’s call for the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula. Hosting South Korean President Moon Jae at the White House on May 21, he told the media that the US and South Korea are willing to engage diplomatically with North Korea as our ultimate goal is denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This is something different from the previous administration’s call for the denuclearization of North Korea only. Thus, analysts believe this statement could hint towards weakening US-South Korea relations, and an indicator of US intentions to remove its troops from the capital of South Korea, Seoul, something which would definitely serve the interest of North Korea. However, a deep analysis reveals otherwise. This is because a call for denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula means North Korea will denuclearize only if South Korea does so, and if we see at the moment South Korea has no nuclear weapons.

What it has instead is the US security Umbrella with around 28,500 US troops stationed there. And considering the interests of the US vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific region, it will never leave a vacuum for any competitor in the region by removing its troops from South Korea. Therefore, it’s important to comprehend the nuclearization phrasing, as calling for the entire peninsula denuclearization might only be intended to make Kim happy and to bring him back to the negotiation table. Moreover, secretary of the state, Antony Blinken has also stated, “It’s up to North Korea if it wants to engage or not on that basis”. Though it apparently shows the good side of the US trying to have flexibility in its approach, yet the reality is the opposite of what it seems to be.

Here leaving an option means giving a clear-cut message to North Korea for the consequences of failing to cooperate. Nevertheless, Kim responds by stating that the US will face a severe crisis if it will follow such an approach. Referring to the US policies as hostile, he regarded it as a complete blunder and call upon the US to remove sanctions on its military program. Thus, intense competition is still underway, and more will be unveiled with each passing day. Till then, there will be multiple interpretations of his policies. However, one thing is for sure that Biden will have an open door step-by-step policy towards North Korea only if it shows compliance and commitment as necessitated.

Ayesha Zafar
Ayesha Zafar
My name is Ayesha Zafar and I am pursuing my Bachelors in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad. I have authored multiple academic publications including research articles and book chapters. My areas of interest include Middle Eastern politics, the geopolitics of Central Asia, and Indo-Pacific region.