Joe Biden’s lack of ambition in finding a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea has left some South Koreans missing the flamboyant summitry of Donald Trump.
The Biden administration has adopted a “calibrated, practical approach” to North Korea, maintaining that it was willing to engage diplomatically without preconditions once Pyongyang was ready to do so.
But observers in Seoul and Washington say an unwillingness to spell out proposals and a lack of engagement at the highest levels indicate a desire to manage rather than solve the North Korea issue, even as Kim Jong Un enhances his missile and nuclear programmes.
“The administration wouldn’t put it like this, but their policy on North Korea is really one of benign 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 analyst.
“They seem to have given up hope of any breakthrough, and for totally understandable reasons,” adding that the administration’s focus was on China.
When North Korea in 2017 tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland, Trump declared that he would rain down “fire and fury” on the east Asian nation.
After a period of acute tension and bellicose rhetoric that policymakers in both Seoul and Washington feared could lead to war, the two leaders met in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019. The summits upended America’s traditional approach to the Korean peninsula.
Their meetings were accompanied by a series of inter-Korean summits in 2018 that produced a historic handshake between Kim and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, at the demarcation line dividing the two Koreas.
“There was a really stark sense of possibility, even euphoria in Seoul at the time,” said Ankit Panda, a North Korea weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Everybody thought Kim Jong Un was coming to town. There was a sense that South Korea was on the front lines of history.”
But the process collapsed at Hanoi amid disagreements over sanctions relief and the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme. Kim has not engaged in talks since, his isolation exacerbated by the lockdown 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 intent toward [North Korea] and remain open to meeting with them without preconditions,” said a state department spokesperson.
“We hope the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will respond positively to our outreach. However, to date, we have not received any substantive response from the DPRK to our offers to meet.”
A senior western government official said: “A lot of the criticism directed at the Americans is coming from people who think that the key to solving the North Korean problem is finding the magic formula that will suddenly satisfy the North Koreans.
“It’s not for the rest of us to be chasing after the North Koreans, especially when they’ve given no sign they want to come to the table — we’re not in the game of just trying to make Kim Jong Un happy.”
But the US insistence that the ball is in Kim’s court has exasperated members of the Moon administration. It has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the US to grant sanctions relief and declare a formal end to the Korean war in a bid to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
“The American position is one of stable management, and the Korean government is losing patience,” said Moon Chung-in, chair of the Sejong Institute think-tank and a former special adviser to President Moon. “We have been urging the American government to send some positive signals; it is very natural for North Korea not to respond 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 chair of South Korea’s ruling Democratic party said that “even though the Trump administration had many problems, the Biden administration must continue the previous administration’s policy, which sought to solve problems with North Korea through dialogue”.
Pew Global Indicators data show that support among South Koreans for Trump’s North Korea policy reached 78 per cent in 2019.
“Despite misgivings about Trump himself, there was strong bipartisan support for his policy of engagement with North Korea,” said Steven Denney from the University of Vienna who has analysed the data.
“There is some nostalgia in South Korea for Trump’s maximalist approach: conservatives miss his ‘maximum pressure’ approach of 2017, while progressives miss the summitry of 2018-2019,” said Wilson Center’s Terry.
“Few have any affection for President Trump personally, and they were upset over his transactional approach to the alliance with South Korea. But there is a sense that at least he tried.”
Analysts said hopes that Trump would make a breakthrough may 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’t just keep saying ‘we’re not Trump, we’re not Obama, we’ll meet any time, any place’. That’s not a policy, that’s a bumper sticker.”
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong