It means more deterrence, more collaboration with allies and more skepticism of Pyongyang, but it may not mean more progress in resolving one of the world’s most intractable impasses. While Biden concluded that former President Donald Trump’s ‘we fell in love’ courtship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was an embarrassing sight, he has no illusions that a return to the old ways would entail a breakthrough so soon either.
Instead, Biden is essentially leaning into a long stalemate, taking steps to contain North Korea and prevent a dangerous escalation — or at least be better prepared to respond in case there is one — while leaving the door open to diplomacy if the right time ever arrives. His trip to Seoul, which will be followed by a visit to Tokyo starting on Sunday, was designed to bolster allies rattled by Trump’s unpredictable maneuvers – as well as China’s growing power – and reassure them that states 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, should I add, more vital,” Biden said, using South Korea’s official name, during a press conference in Seoul with President Yoon Suk-yeol. , which inaugurated only 11 days ago.
Biden and Yoon announced they would explore ways to expand joint military exercises that have historically angered North Korea so much that Trump has sought to limit them during his presidency in a concession to Kim.
Unlike Trump, Biden hailed the continued presence of US troops in South Korea. “It’s emblematic of our strength and our continued strength and the durability of our alliance and our willingness to meet all threats,” he said.
Likewise, Biden has taken a more cautious stance toward the prospect of direct relations with the nuclear-armed North. He said the United States has already offered vaccines to North Korea to help it deal with what has been reported as a devastating coronavirus outbreak. “We haven’t had a response,” he said.
“As to whether I would meet the leader of North Korea,” he added, “it would depend on his sincerity and seriousness.”
The president’s approach stands in stark contrast to that of Trump, who first threatened the North with “fire and fury” and then struck up an unlikely and affectionate friendship with Kim. Trump bragged about the ‘love letters’ sent to him by the North Korean dictator, flattering missives he enjoyed so much he took them with him to Mar-a-Lago in Florida after work instead than leaving them with the archives as it should.
Abandoning diplomatic convention that presidents should not meet with adversaries unless a deal was at or close to it, Trump sat down with Kim three times, becoming the first sitting president. to see his North Korean counterpart in person. During their last meeting, a meeting in the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas, Trump even crossed the line and officially entered North Korea.
But the two have reached no lasting agreement limiting North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Instead, Trump offered unilateral and non-reciprocal gestures, such as agreeing to suspend major joint military exercises with South Korea without prior warning to 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 government in Seoul at the time uncertain about the American commitment to the alliance.
At one point in 2019, he threatened to withdraw 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 offered a “complete withdrawal of US forces from South Korea”, only to be dissuaded.
Despite Trump’s suspension of high-level military exercises, smaller-scale joint exercises with the South Korean military have continued during his tenure. In a joint statement on Saturday, Biden and Yoon agreed to begin “discussions to expand the scope and scale” of military exercises.
Biden said the cooperation showed “our willingness to face all threats together.” He also said his administration would work together to deal with cyberattacks from North Korea. Likewise, in Tokyo, he plans to meet families of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korea, an undying priority for the Japanese government.
Biden’s team is focused on returning to a North Korean strategy aimed at deterrence, according to an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity on Saturday to explain the president’s thinking. Much like President Barack Obama, whose vice president he was, 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 got involved.
The administration does not seem to anticipate an imminent breakthrough. While it was quick to turn to sanctions against North Korea, foreign policy analysts have pointed out that diplomacy initially seemed largely absent from Biden’s approach.
The administration’s special envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, juggles his mission as ambassador to Indonesia. And Biden waited a year before appointing Philip Goldberg, a former sanctions enforcement official, as ambassador to South Korea. Yet an administration official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said on Saturday that the Americans had repeatedly attempted to engage with North Korea, making approaches at various levels, only to meet than silence.
“It seems to me that the United States has by default adopted a posture remarkably similar to Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ policy,” said Alexander R Vershbow, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to South Korea under the President George W Bush. “And they get the same result: no negotiations, no more tests and not even lip service from Pyongyang in favor of the denuclearization goal.” That said, he added, “even if there were negotiations, they are unlikely to make any progress.”
Victor D Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and a former Asian adviser to Bush, said Biden’s strategy resembled the American pre-Trump formula of insisting on the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of North America’s nuclear program. Korea before granting economic sanctions relief, a well-known formula. in diplomatic parlance by his initials CVID.
“It’s a return to CVID not to mention unilateral lifting of sanctions, abandonment of exercises or unilateral declarations of peace,” Cha said. “In that sense, it normalizes and realigns the alliance’s policy on North Korea. What good is it, you ask? With North Korean stubbornness, Chinese apathy and lack of Russian cooperation, North Korean policy is to keep the allies together and not weaken 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 pledge to address global supply chain issues that have contributed to soaring inflation in the United States. United.
Ahead of their joint press conference on Saturday, the two delegations met for several hours — Yoon’s staffers were overheard chatting with Biden aides, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, about the history of the US-Korean relations and previous meetings with other allies in the region, among them the Japanese delegation that Biden will meet on Monday.
After meeting Yoon one-on-one, Biden said the two nations would continue to fight climate change and the pandemic and would continue to work to ensure “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 power promising a tougher approach to North Korea, said he was happy with Biden’s stance. “President Biden and I agree on so many fronts,” Yoon said.
South Korea’s new president has not ruled out talks with Kim, and like his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, he has offered the prospect of economic aid for the North. But Yoon made it clear that the North should give up its nuclear weapons, which it clearly did not want to do. Indeed, in recent days, US intelligence officials have warned that North Korea could test a missile or nuclear weapon during Biden’s trip to reassert itself internationally.
“The door to dialogue remains open,” Yoon said. “If North Korea truly commits to denuclearization in partnership with the international community, I am ready to present a bold plan that will significantly strengthen its economy and improve the quality of life of its people.”
The meeting between Biden and Yoon also underscored how much Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now looms over all of Biden’s diplomacy around the world.
“The war on Ukraine is not just Europe’s business,” Biden said. “This is an attack on democracy and fundamental international principles of sovereignty, and the ROK and the United States stand together as part of a global response with our allies and partners around the world.”
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