One of the consequences of the 2016 US presidential election is that people don’t believe polls. While such disbelief is largely unfounded, we can include a caveat nonetheless: If the polls do not change, and if they are not wildly accurate, the US will have a new president in January. If so, North Korea policy will also all but certainly change. But by how much?
The answer is: probably a lot compared to the last four years, but not the last 20.
What approach could we expect from a Biden administration? The simplest answer is that we don’t know yet. Biden’s experience in the Obama administration, his long track record in the US Senate (including on the Committee on Foreign Relations) and the overall reaction of the Democratic Party establishment to the Trump administration’s moves offer clues, but little that is definitive.
First, let’s look at Biden’s Obama connection. When Barack Obama took office in 2009 he had expressed willingness to engage in direct talks with the North (as well as Iran). Supporters of his (as well as his critics) could have been forgiven for assuming that his administration would take an accommodating line on the Pyongyang regime, but that is not really what transpired. The North Koreans only met one US president during Obama’s two terms, and it wasn’t the incumbent. Instead, Obama’s actions for much of his term involved tightening sanctions (though many will certainly argue they weren’t tightened enough) and occasional outreach separated by long periods of nothing.
While it wasn’t official policy, there was an official sounding name for this approach – “strategic patience” – and rarely has such sophisticated terminology been used to describe something so uneventful.
So what explains how Obama’s administration fell so far short of expectations? There are two major reasons: 1) North Korea’s disinterest, and 2) broader foreign policy concerns.
Regarding the first, North Korea appeared ripe for a diplomatic breakthrough by the end of 2008. In addition to Obama’s welcoming words, there was the departing Bush administration’s removal of North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, to which Pyongyang responded by destroying the cooling tower at Yongbyon.
But from early 2009 North Korea displayed little interest in building on such progress (indeed, by the end of 2010, it would reveal that such progress had been an illusion). Early 2009 featured not only the North’s second nuclear test, and demise of the Six Party Talks, and the detention of American citizens Euna Lee and Laura Ling, thus prompting Bill Clinton’s only face to face meeting with Kim Jong Il. For the remainder of his first term and much of his second Obama remained occupied with the domestic economy and preventing tensions with Iran from boiling over. By the mid-point of his second term he had a new basket full of problems, with the rise of Daesh (ISIS or ISIL), plus Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the possibility of enhanced relations with Cuba.
I list these events for a reason. During a talk I attended about halfway through Obama’s second term, Marcus Noland of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, who has authored numerous publications on North Korea, suggested that Washington can handle only a handful of tasks at one time, and North Korea was not high on the list of priorities. It certainly is conceivable that North Korea, through its disregard for previous deals (including those Obama had offered), along with the sense that Pyongyang’s provocations were designed not to tip over into war, removed itself from Obama’s priority list early on.
And it paid off: the Obama administration’s approach was reactive for much of his two terms, mostly responding to abductions of citizens by sending high-ranking officials to ensure their release. When Obama left office, the Kim regime was firmly entrenched in power and had made considerable advances in its nuclear arsenal.
What would a Biden administration learn from this? It would be a mistake to assume he’ll do the same; the rollback of Daesh has left Biden with one less task to achieve in the Middle East, and with Iran likely uninterested in another deal now that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has been terminated, his team will not need to expend political capital on a proactive approach there. Biden’s administration may confront a new challenge in a more assertive China, but they and North Korea may be problems that can be dealt with in a more complementary manner than with Middle Eastern issues such as Iran or Daesh.
Biden would also, it must be said, be a different person as leader than the man he served as veep under. Biden’s foreign policy track record is rather difficult to pin down, often seemingly driven by the zeitgeist of the moment, and he would appoint a cabinet distinct from Obama’s. Not to mention that the Democratic Party he presides over has seen a seismic shift in just the past four years, becoming younger and more diverse – at least among its office-holding population.
Still, if the Democratic Party’s conduct during the Trump years offers a hint of the approach Biden might take, it will indeed take us back to the Obama years. Though they have substantively offered little besides disapproval of Trump, either for carrying out his summits with Kim Jong Un, for reaching no substantive deals with Kim during those summits, or for his attempts to strong-arm Seoul and Tokyo into paying more for their security partnership with the US. This hints at 1) no more summits, and 2) renewed attempts at shoring up alliances in East Asia, including their frequently fraught ties with each other.
It can’t be denied that this leaves Biden with a narrow set of options. Sanctions relief may be on the table, but Obama’s experience (and North Korea’s recent actions toward Seoul) prove that North Korea doesn’t always accept what it is offered.
One thing we can expect is for the North to test Biden’s resolve right away. That’s been their approach for previous – at least the last two – US administrations, and the form of provocation (as well as Biden’s response to it) will likely shape how he approaches them for the rest of his term.
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