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Michael Breen on Korean Peninsula

Why a Biden presidency means more of the same with North Korea

Oct 13, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

If the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden wins the US presidential election next month, as the polls suggest he will, many things will change.

The government in Seoul, for example, is confident it will no longer be pressured to pay more for American troops deployed in South Korea – at least not by 400 percent, which is what the incumbent, Donald J. Trump, has been pushing for.

But in one area we can guarantee zero change. That is, North Korea.  

Of course, that doesn’t mean the candidate is saying he won’t try. If elected, Biden would be “willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un if the meeting is preceded by necessary groundwork and helps denuclearize the communist nation.” This according to Brian McKeon, a Biden foreign policy adviser, in an interview with the Yonhap News Agency.

But, reading between the lines, “necessary groundwork” and “helps denuclearize” are code for “probably never.”

The prospect of no progress won’t exactly depress those in South Korea who are pushing for peace and reconciliation with the Kim Jong-un regime. But that's because they’re already depressed. Two years ago, they were perked up by Trump’s willingness to go against the advice of the foreign policy establishment and meet Kim, but since then they’ve been let down. (To remind, Trump met Kim in Singapore in 2018 and at the DMZ in 2019. But at their third meeting, in Hanoi in 2019, he walked out.)

Since then, there’s been nothing.

Could Biden pick up this baton? It doesn’t seem likely. In the interview, which was the first by a Biden aide to Korean media, McKeon said that Biden would “undertake a principled approach to the North Korea challenge.” Could this spell a breakthrough? No, it’s campaign talk, code for “Trump’s policy is unprincipled.”

Unprincipled he may be, but the point as far as Korean fans of engagement are concerned is that Trump was willing to give the North Korean leader face-time and meet with him. That’s how you do it with North Koreans, they say. Before Trump, no American president had entertained such a strategy. All operated on the diplomatic assumption that a summit with an American leader is a gift that has to be earned, rather than an effort that might yield fruit. Biden is certain to fall back on this traditional posture.

But, there is a deeper reason I'm sure that Biden won't achieve much. I would argue that the reason Trump’s meeting failed is the same reason that a President Biden’s non-meeting will fail. That is, that the objective driving them in both cases is the wrong one.

McKeon referred to the “challenge” of North Korea. As with any challenge, it is important to perceive it clearly to develop a strategy for dealing with it. So, what is it? For a Biden administration, as for Trump and his predecessors going back to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, it is the same – denuclearization. The American objective with North Korea is not to, say, woo it away from China, or foster inter-Korean reconciliation, or end the 70-year standoff. It is to get the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons program. Nothing else is of much interest.

There’s a certain appeal in this. A policeman needs to persuade a criminal to put down his weapon before the neighbors can relax. The trouble is, though, the US and North Korea are not characters in a crime thriller. They are countries.

Fixation on the nuclear issue has achieved the opposite of what was intended. At first North Korea only threatened to become a nuclear-armed state. Now, it is one.

What the next American president needs here is a broader vision, a more visionary vision, a context within which the nuclear issue will be solved. A vision, for example, of a democratic, free market Northeast Asia.

If we were to embrace that type of vision, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would already be in. So would Mongolia. China has a market-based system but is illiberal, so there’s an issue. North Korea, well, as a Nazi-like state, it has the furthest to go.

The beauty of such an umbrella concept is that it would help us see opportunities to nudge the region in this desired direction. It will help us see the advantage of signing a Korean War peace treaty now rather than keeping it as leverage, a bargaining chip to trade in the nuclear weapons issue. It will help us see the advantage of having a US embassy in Pyongyang and North Korean students in western universities.

If we can’t drag them out of the cold, how about coaxing them out with all kinds of deals and associations and involvement, with a vision of democracy to guide us?

By Michael Breen
Michael Breen is a Seoul-based writer, columnist and consultant. He is the CEO of Insight Communications and the author of a number of books on Korea, most recently The New Koreans.

Why a Biden presidency means more of the same with North Korea

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