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Biden, Yoon Embrace Policy of North Korea Denuclearization Backed by Deterrence, Not Concessions

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at the People's House, May 21, 2022, in Seoul.
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at the People's House, May 21, 2022, in Seoul.

U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol have effectively ended a conciliatory stance toward North Korea, marking the beginning of firm deterrence and an unyielding goal of denuclearization during their first summit, experts said.

Biden and Yoon suggested they remain open to a diplomatic path if North Korea is sincere in achieving denuclearization.

While open to dialogue, Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said the two leaders agreed to take a firm military stance in dealing with North Korea.

“Washington and Seoul will look for ways to show a strong military posture as a deterrent” against any potential provocations, he said.

The approach Biden and Yoon adopted — strengthening deterrence with the goal of denuclearization while staying open to diplomacy — is a clear departure from what was possible for the Biden administration to achieve with former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had different approach toward North Korea, according to Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief of Korea and current senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Klingner said Moon "advocated offering benefits to North Korea, including more lax enforcement of sanctions, prior to Pyongyang taking steps toward coming into compliance with U.N. resolutions."

Moon prioritized inter-Korean reconciliation and pursued a conciliatory approach to engage North Korea in dialogue while he sought an end-of-war declaration and peace initiative over denuclearization.

The approach, according to U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan in October, differed from the priority Washington placed on denuclearization.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Yoon said that appeasing North Korea through the conciliatory strategy Moon adopted "has proven to be a failure."

Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, "The key difference between this summit and the Biden-Moon summit of 2021 is the shared realization today that concessionary diplomacy toward North Korea has not only not succeeded, [but] it has encouraged even worse behavior by North Korea."

North Korea conducted 17 rounds of weapons tests this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. On Wednesday in Korea, the South Korean military said North Korea fired ballistic missiles.

Klingner pointed out that the joint statement by Biden and Yoon on Saturday included their concerns over North Korea's missile launches and nuclear programs.

The statement says the two leaders view North Korea's nuclear program as "a grave threat" and "condemned" Pyongyang's "escalatory ballistic missile tests this year," which are "clear violations" of U.N. resolutions.

The critical tone toward weapons tests and programs was absent in the Biden-Moon joint statement made a year ago, on May 21, 2021, even though North Korea launched multiple missiles prior to that summit.

"The 2022 statement has a stronger tone, criticizing North Korea's actions while the 2021 statement merely sought to address nuclear and missile programs," Klingner said.

What was included in the 2021 Biden-Moon joint statement but excluded in the 2022 Biden-Yoon joint statement was the mention of the Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore Joint Statement. Each emphasized peace on the Korean Peninsula while seeking denuclearization.

Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed the Panmunjom Declaration at their summit in April 2018, agreeing to improve inter-Korean ties and reduce military tensions toward an eventual path toward reunification.

The Singapore Joint Statement that former U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim signed at their summit in June 2018 said Washington would provide a security guarantee toward Pyongyang as it sought denuclearization.

Harry Kazianis, president of the newly developing think tank Rogue States Project, said, "The Moon government was clearly willing to take much greater risks and offer concessions as a sort of carrot for talks if it would move the needle, and the Biden team was clearly against that."

Kazianis continued that Biden and Yoon "are on the same page when it comes to denuclearization. Yoon and Biden don't want to make any major concessions to Pyongyang for just coming to the table and talking."

Rather than hinting at any concessions such as the security guarantees and sanctions relief sought by North Korea, Biden and Yoon have agreed to take a stronger defense posture against the regime's threats.

The 2022 joint statement says, "Biden affirms the U.S. extended deterrence commitment" to South Korea "using the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities."

In contrast, while stating the U.S. would use a full range of capabilities to defend South Korea, the 2021 joint statement does not pinpoint using nuclear capabilities in deterring North Korea.

Klingner also said, "Yoon and Biden pledged to resume combined military exercises and U.S. rotational deployment of strategic assets."

Joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea were often either scaled down or canceled under the Moon government after Trump suspended what he called "provocative" exercises in June 2018 following his Singapore summit with Kim.

The Biden-Yoon joint statement says, "considering the evolving threat" from North Korea, the leaders "agree to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training."

VOA's Korean Service contacted North Korea's mission to the U.N. for its response to the Biden-Yoon joint statement emphasizing deterrence while seeking denuclearization but did not receive a reply.

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said the approach taken by Biden and Yoon would make it difficult for North Korea to come to the negotiating table.

The Biden-Yoon statement laid out "a two-pronged strategy, one of deterring North Korea and the other, denuclearization" but "didn't talk about anything about the concessions that the U.S. and South Korea would be willing to make in order to get back into discussions with North Korea."

Kazianis regretted that what was missing was a detailed description of a possible deal on denuclearization.

"Neither Yoon nor Biden would declare any outlines of what a deal with North Korea on denuclearization might look like – something I would argue Pyongyang would want before it sits down and talks," he said.

"However,” he added, “Yoon and Biden have much bigger problems to tackle besides North Korea right now, and it makes sense that neither wants to risk any political capital trying to engage" North Korea.