Rejecting ‘Love Letters’ to North Korea, Joe Biden offers carrots and sticks instead

Love letters are out. Military exercises are back. In his first visit to South Korea since taking office, President Joe Biden restored America’s strategy toward the Korean Peninsula to the traditional approach that prevailed before his predecessor upended generations of relations by romancing North Korea’s dictatorial.

That means more deterrence, more collaboration with allies and more skepticism of Pyongyang, but it may not mean more progress resolving one of the world’s most intractable standoffs. While Biden concluded that former President Donald Trump’s “we fell in love” courtship of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was an embarrassing spectacle, he holds little illusion that a return to the old ways would result in a breakthrough anytime soon, either.

Instead, Biden is essentially hunkering down for a long impasse, taking measures to keep North Korea contained and to forestall a dangerous escalation — or at least be better prepared to respond in case there is one — while leaving the door open to diplomacy should the right moment ever arrives. His trip to Seoul, to be followed by a visit to Tokyo starting Sunday, was designed to Bolster allies rattled by Trump’s unpredictable maneuvering — as well as China’s growing power — and reassure them that the United States would never abandon them in the face of a nuclear threat.

“The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States has never been stronger, more vibrant or, I might add, more vital,” Biden said, using South Korea’s formal name, at a news conference in Seoul with President Yoon Suk-yeol , who inaugurated only 11 days ago.

Biden and Yoon announced that they would explore ways to expand the joint military exercises that have historically irritated North so much that Trump sought to curtail them during his presidency in a concession to Kim.

Unlike Trump, Biden hailed the continuing US troop presence in South Korea. “It’s emblematic of our strength and our continuing strength and the durability of our alliance and our readiness to take on all threats,” he said.

Similarly, Biden took a more speculative attitude toward the prospect of direct dealings with the nuclear-armed North. He said the United States had already offered vaccines to North Korea to help it cope with what has been reported to be a devastating coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve gotten no response,” he said.

“With regard to whether I would meet with the leader of North Korea,” he added, “that would depend on whether he was sincere and whether it was serious.”

The president’s approach contrasted sharply with that of Trump, who initially threatened the North with “fire and fury,” only to later strike an unlikely and affectionate friendship with Kim. Trump boasted about the “love letters” sent to him by the North Korean dictator, flattering missives he valued so much that he took them with him to Mar-a-Lago in Florida after office rather than leaving them with the archives as required.

Dispensing with the diplomatic convention that presidents should not meet with adversaries unless a deal had previously worked out or close to it, Trump sat down three times with Kim, becoming the first sitting president to see his North Korean counterpart in person. In their last encounter, a get-together at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, Trump even stepped across the line and formally entered North Korea.

But the two reached no lasting agreement restraining North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Instead, Trump offered unilateral and unreciprocated gestures like agreeing to suspend major joint military exercises with South Korea without first warning either Seoul or the Pentagon.

Trump also questioned why the United States still maintained a force of 28,500 troops in the country seven decades after the Korean War, leaving the Seoul government of that time uncertain about the US commitment to the alliance.

At one point in 2019, he threatened to pull out 4,000 troops unless South Korea paid $5 billion a year to support the deployment, five times more than it was already spending. In his new memoir, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote that Trump even proposed a “complete withdrawal of US forces from South Korea,” only to be talked out of it.

Despite Trump’s suspension of the high-profile military drills, smaller-scale joint exercises with the South Korean military continued during his term. In a joint statement Saturday, Biden and Yoon agreed to start “discussions to expand the scope and scale” of the military exercises.

Biden said that cooperation showed “our readiness to take on all threats together.” He also said that his administration would cooperate to confront cyberattacks from North Korea. Likewise, in Tokyo, he plans to meet with families of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korea, a perennial priority for Japan’s government.

Biden’s team is focused on returning to a North Korea strategy aimed at deterrence, according to an administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity Saturday to explain the president’s thinking. Much like President Barack Obama, for whom he was vice president, Biden is open to meeting with Kim at some point in the future, the official said, but wants to return to the more traditional protocol in which lower-level diplomats engage with the North before he becomes involved.

The administration does not seem to anticipate any imminent breakthrough. While it has been quick to turn to sanctions against North Korea, foreign policy analysts have pointed out that diplomacy seemed to be largely missing from Biden’s approach at first.

The administration’s special envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, is juggling the assignment with his ambassadorship to Indonesia. And Biden waited a year before nominating Philip Goldberg, a former enforcer, to be ambassador to South Korea. Still, an administration official, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the Americans had repeatedly tried to engage with North Korea, making approaches on a variety of levels, only to be met with silence.

“It looks to me that the US has defaulted to a posture remarkably similar to the Obama ‘strategic patience’ policy,” said Alexander R. Vershbow, a career diplomat who was ambassador to South Korea under President George W. Bush. “And they’re getting the same result: no negotiations, more tests and not even lip service by Pyongyang to the goal of denuclearization.” That said, he added, “even if there were negotiations, it’s unlikely they would make any progress.”

Victor D. Cha, a Georgetown University professor and former Asia adviser to Bush, said Biden’s strategy resembles the pre-Trump US formula of insisting on complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program before granting any relief from economic sanctions, a formula known in diplomatic parlance by its initials CVID.

“It’s a return to CVID without talking about unilateral sanctions, quitting exercises or unilateral peace declarations,” Cha said. “In that sense, it is normalizing and realigning alliance policy on North Korea. What good is that, you ask? With North Korean obstinance, Chinese apathy and Russian uncooperativeness, North Korea policy becomes about keeping the allies together and not weakening the alliance. I think that’s what happened today, and it’s important.”

But Biden wants to expand the relationship with South Korea beyond just a security partnership. The day before their bilateral meeting, the president and Yoon met at a Samsung semiconductor factory to commit to addressing global supply chain issues that have contributed to soaring inflation in the United States.

Before their joint news conference Saturday, the two delegations met for several hours — Yoon’s staff members were overheard discussing with Biden aides, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the history of Korean-American relations and of previous meetings with other allies in the region, among them the Japanese delegation that Biden will meet with Monday.

After meeting one-on-one with Yoon, Biden said that the two nations would continue to combat climate change and the pandemic and would keep working to ensure that “the Indo-Pacific is a free and open area.” Biden’s team has previously criticized China’s aggression in the South China Sea.

Yoon, who came to office promising a tougher approach to North Korea, expressed satisfaction with Biden’s stance. “President Biden and I see eye to eye on so many fronts,” Yoon said.

The new South Korean president did not rule out talks with Kim, and like his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, he offered the prospect of economic assistance for the North. But Yoon made it clear that the North would have to give up its nuclear weapons, which it has been manifestly unwilling to do. Indeed, in recent days, US intelligence officials have warned that North Korea might test a missile or a nuclear weapon during Biden’s trip to reassert itself internationally.

“The door to dialogue remains open,” Yoon said. “If North Korea genuinely embarks upon denuclearization in partnership with the international community, I am prepared to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen its economy and improve the quality of life for its people.”

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