Joe Biden’s lack of ambition to find a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea has made some South Koreans miss the flamboyant summit of Donald Trump.
The Biden administration has taken a “calibrated, practical approach” to North Korea, insisting that it be prepared to engage diplomatically without preconditions once Pyongyang is ready to do so.
But observers in Seoul and Washington say a reluctance to spell out proposals and a lack of involvement at the highest levels indicate a desire to manage the North Korean issue rather than resolve it, even if Kim improves Jong Un sy missile and nuclear power programs.
“The administration will not put it that way, but their policy on North Korea is really one of benevolent neglect,” said Sue Mi Terry, director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former CIA said. analyst.
“They seem to have given up hope of any breakthrough, and for perfectly understandable reasons,” adding that the administration’s focus was on China.
When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in 2017 that could hit the American continent, Trump declared that he would rain “fire and anger” on the East Asian nation.
After a period of acute tension and warring rhetoric that policymakers in both Seoul and Washington feared could lead to war, the two leaders met in 2018 in Singapore and Hanoi in 2019. The summit lifted America’s traditional approach to the Korean Peninsula.
Their meetings were accompanied by a series of inter-Korean summit in 2018 that yielded a historic handshake between Kim and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, at the demarcation between the two Koreas.
“There was a very strong sense of possibility, even euphoria in Seoul at the time,” said Ankit Panda, a North Korean weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Everyone thought Kim Jong Un was coming to town. “There was a feeling that South Korea was at the forefront of history.”
But the process collapsed at Hanoi amid disagreements over easing sanctions and dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. Kim has not held talks since, his isolation has been exacerbated by the restriction he imposed on his country in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For Biden administration officials, the failure of Trump’s North Korea gambit justifies their low-key approach.
“We have no hostile intentions towards [North Korea] and remain open to meet with them unconditionally, ”said a State Department spokesman.
“We hope the DVK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will respond positively to our outreach. To date, however, we have not received a substantive response from the DVK to our offer to meet. ”
A senior Western government official said: “Much of the criticism leveled at the Americans comes from people who think that the key to solving the North Korean problem is to find the magic formula that the North Koreans will suddenly have. satisfy.
“It’s not for the rest of us to chase after the North Koreans, especially if they have given no sign that they want to come to the table – we are not in the game to just try to kill Kim Jong Un. to make happy. “
But the U.S. insistence that the ball is in Kim’s court irritated members of the Moon administration. It has unsuccessfully tried to persuade the US to grant relief from sanctions and declare a formal end to the Korean War in an attempt to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
“The U.S. position is one of stable management, and the Korean government is losing patience,” said Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute think tank and a former special adviser to President Moon. “We have asked the US Government to send positive signals; it is very natural for North Korea not to react to empty proposals. “
A member of the South Korean president’s inner circle told the Financial Times: “The Biden administration pretends to care about our proposals, but it has not yet accommodated them.”
In September, the chairman of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party said that “although the Trump administration had many problems, the Biden administration should continue the policy of the previous administration, which tried to solve problems with North Korea through resolve dialogue ”.
Pew Global Indicators data show that support among South Koreans for Trump’s North Korea policy reached 78 percent in 2019.
“Despite concerns about Trump himself, there was strong bipartisan support for his policy of engagement with North Korea,” said Steven Denney of the University of Vienna, who analyzed the data.
“There is a degree of nostalgia in South Korea for Trump’s maximalist approach: Conservatives miss his 2017 ‘maximum pressure’ approach, while progressives miss the 2018-2019 summit,” said Terry of the Wilson Center.
“Few have any love for President Trump personally, and they were upset about his transactional approach to the alliance with South Korea. But there is a feeling that he at least tried. “
Analysts said the hope that Trump would make a breakthrough might have been illusory, but the Biden administration could not simply wish the issue away.
Victor Cha, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “They can not just keep saying ‘we are not Trump, we are not Obama, we will meet anytime, anywhere’. It’s not a policy, it’s a buffer sticker. “
Additional Reporting by Kang Buseong