Donald Trump may have redefined what is possible when it comes to the United States’ relationship with North Korea, whether it was threatening to "totally destroy" the country or becoming the first sitting U.S. president to meet and later claim he "fell in love" with its leader. But U.S.-North Korea diplomacy could soon become more conventional.
Joe Biden, Trump’s challenger in the November presidential election, has promised a more traditional approach to North Korea. He’s also signaled a return to a more antagonistic relationship. During the campaign, Biden has repeatedly referred to Kim Jong Un as a “dictator,” a “thug,” and a “tyrant.” North Korea has shot back, calling Biden an "imbecile" and a "fool of low IQ."
Though Biden didn’t directly mention North Korea in his nomination acceptance speech last week, the Democratic nominee said if elected he would ensure the “days of cozying up to dictators” are over.
Instead, Biden says he would tighten sanctions on North Korea and work with allies, as well as China, to pressure Pyongyang to make concessions on its nuclear program.
Strategic patience redux?
For many analysts, Biden’s ideas about North Korea sound familiar. As vice president, Biden helped oversee former President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” which attempted to gradually apply economic and military pressure until Pyongyang was ready to negotiate.
While Biden doesn’t use the phrase “strategic patience” to describe his North Korea plans, his administration may end up with a policy of “strategic patience by default” if it doesn’t offer “some kind of unilateral opening gesture to compel the North Koreans back to negotiations,” says Jenny Town, a North Korea specialist with the Washington D.C.-based Stimson Center.
But if his campaign comments are any indication, Biden is not interested in meeting Kim anytime soon. Biden has said he would not continue Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim, arguing that summit “photo ops” give undue legitimacy to the North Korean leader.
Instead, in an article earlier this year Biden promised to empower negotiators working on North Korea, suggesting at least initially the diplomatic interaction would occur at lower levels.
According to Town, there is now "added pressure to make a summit count and not walk away empty handed.”
“A Biden administration will probably continue a pro-diplomacy approach. But the stakes are higher now on both sides. Neither the U.S. nor North Korea is likely to be willing to take the kind of unilateral measures that we saw in 2018 or rush into a summit," she says.
Trump’s approach: limited success
Trump and Kim met three times, including in June 2018 in Singapore, where they signed a vague agreement to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But working-level talks eventually stalled and North Korea walked away.
Trump and Kim continued to exchange personal letters, even after North Korea restarted short-range ballistic missile tests last year. In Trump’s view, it's because of that relationship that North Korea has recently refrained from any nuclear tests or long-range missile launches.
But Trump's friendship with Kim hasn't kept North Korea from continuing to quietly develop nuclear weapons. Pyongyang is estimated to have as many as 60 nuclear bombs, with the capability to produce several more each year.
Trump insists he can break the deadlock with a second term, recently claiming he would reach a deal with North Korea “very quickly” if re-elected. But analysts warn that Trump's North Korea policy will likely continue to be unpredictable.
“Anything seems to be within the realm of possibility” if Trump is re-elected, says Soo Kim, a North Korea analyst at the RAND Corporation. “Whatever whims or mood he feels, he’s able to backtrack and do a complete 180 from wherever he was.”
There’s no guarantee that Biden’s more measured approach will lead to denuclearization progress, either -- especially if it resembles Obama’s strategic patience.
“Strategic patience was not so effective in terms of stopping or even slowing down the progress of North Korea’s ICBM or nuclear capability,” says Bong Young-shik, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
From 2009 to 2016, North Korea conducted four nuclear tests and made crucial progress on its ballistic missile program. It conducted another nuclear test in 2017 under Trump. As a result, some now believe Pyongyang has a credible enough nuclear threat to change the fundamental calculation with Washington.
“It is time for you to deal with the problem as it is,” Bong says. “North Korea has nuclear weapons and ICBMs that can possibly carry nuclear warheads to at least parts of U.S. territory or U.S. bases in East Asia.”
In the view of one senior South Korean Blue House official who spoke to VOA last year, a return to “strategic patience” is impractical, in large part because North Korea already has the nuclear weapons it has long sought.
“Strategic patience -- what would we be waiting for?” asked the South Korean official.
A growing number of nuclear policy analysts believe the United States, rather than pushing for denuclearization that may never happen, should instead focus on reducing North Korea's nuclear arsenal and ensuring Pyongyang doesn't use it.
But there are no signs either Biden or Trump plan to formally embrace an arms control or deterrence approach to North Korea. Doing so would essentially amount to recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power, setting what many see as a dangerous precedent for global nuclear non-proliferation efforts.
What will North Korea do?
In the end, much will likely depend on how North Korea acts.
At the beginning of 2020, Kim warned he no longer feels constrained by his moratorium on long-range missile or nuclear tests and threatened to soon show off a new “strategic weapon.”
But since those comments, North Korea has had to deal with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, devastating floods during a worse than usual monsoon season, and sanctions that continue to hold back its economy.
Although state media have vaguely hinted at a provocation timed for the U.S. election, Kim may be reluctant to do anything that upsets the chances for diplomacy.
In July, Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s increasingly powerful sister, said her country has “no intention of threatening the United States...if they don’t touch us and hurt us.”
"We are not saying we are not going to denuclearize,” she said. “But we cannot denuclearize now.”