As former US vice president Joe Biden prepares his transition into the White House following a heated presidential election — the results of which current President Donald Trump still has not yet accepted — it looks possible that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is going to present the incoming president with a foreign policy headache as soon as he starts his new job.
North Korea’s state media once described Biden as a “rabid dog who should be beaten to death,” and Kim has yet to comment publicly on the result of last week’s presidential election.
The incoming president, who has been critical of Trump’s “cozy relationships” with numerous dictators, was never expected to copy the current President’s strategy of love-bombing North Korea’s leader, but the Biden administration is already off to a bad start in trying to resolve the North Korean question given Pyongyang’s view of him.
Trump’s Considerable Progress with Pyongyang
Andrei Lankov, a professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, told the Express Online that Pyongyang is going to be “deeply unhappy” with a Biden presidency.
Furthermore, the incoming president has previously branded North Korea’s leader as a “thug.”
Despite this, it’s important to remember that the relationship between Kim and Trump also started off badly in 2017. The current President mockingly described North Korea’s leader as “rocket man” before meeting Kim for conferences designed to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Though Trump ultimately failed to resolve the North Korean question — which has been haunting US presidents for decades — he made far more progress on this issue than his predecessor President Barack Obama. He became the first American president to enter North Korea’s border and he managed to ensure that both North and South Korea entered into peaceful dialog, which is a crucial first step toward ending the unfinished war between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Biden may not approve of Trump’s attitude toward dictators, but regarding North Korea, it’s fair to say that the strategy has paid off to a certain extent.
Biden Should Make North Korea-South Korea Peace a Priority
Before the recent US election, I wrote in a previous column that Kim’s recent display of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) demonstrates that the Korean peace process is over. Nonetheless, that does not mean I believe that Biden should start imposing fresh sanctions on Pyongyang, because they are clearly failing to prevent North Korea’s regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.
I also stressed that whoever becomes the next US president should prioritize ending the hostilities between North and South Korea. This is because the benefit of such an approach would slowly steer Pyongyang away from Beijing’s influence.
If this is the path that Biden chooses, he will find it impossible to achieve such an outcome without meeting North Korea’s leader face-to-face.
Biden May Have to Meet Kim Jong-un at Some Stage
The Chinese Government may be more open to collaborating with Biden to start paving the way for an end to North Korea’s nuclear missile program. For example, one solution is for Beijing to provide Pyongyang with payments that are tied to denuclearization.
Yet the incoming president has also referred to Jinping as a “thug.” Such comments would make it difficult for China and America to collaborate with one another to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but that depends on whether Biden’s policy approach toward Beijing is going to be exactly the same as Trump’s.
Gregory F. Treverton argued in Time that one possible option to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program is regime change from within. This could happen because of the economic impact that the coronavirus is having on North Korea, yet the country’s regime has a remarkable history of preserving itself. Nevertheless, regime change is ultimately the only way to achieve positive change in Korea.
The reality is that there will be no change in the relationship between North Korea and the US once Biden enters the White House this January. Equally, the incoming president might have to quietly adopt Trump’s approach toward Pyongyang if he has any hope of persuading Kim to surrender his nuclear weapons.