There may be a new presidential administration at the White House these days, but Joe Biden is inheriting all of the same challenges that dogged his predecessor, along with a few new ones. One area where we’ve barely heard a peep out of President Biden thus far is the question of what he plans to do about the situation on the Korean Peninsula. He seemed to have no problem throwing stones at Donald Trump for his handling of that relationship, but now he’s the one who has to deal with it. Kim Jong-un is still in power, he’s still threatening to resume testing of nukes and ICBMs, and he’s still committing endless human rights abuses on his own people. His relationship with Donald Trump didn’t get him anything that he wanted, and now, as the Associated Press describes it, he has to “start over” and build a new relationship with Joe Biden. But it clearly isn’t going to be love at first sight.
Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
While Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons program in recent political speeches, he also tried to give Biden an opening by saying that the fate of their relations depends on whether Washington discards what he calls hostile U.S. policies.
It’s unclear how patient Kim will be. North Korea has a history of testing new U.S. administrations with missile launches and other provocations aimed at forcing the Americans back to the negotiating table.
For several years, Donald Trump used a combination of carrots and sticks to deal with Kim. The carrots were flattery and the opportunity to take the international stage as a legitimate leader holding meetings with the American President. The sticks were the sanctions that would not be removed until actual denuclearization was well underway. (It never happened.)
The reality is that, in the end, Donald Trump failed in his effort to denuclearize North Korea. Perhaps there was never any hope of such a result to begin with. But if nothing else, he delivered a sustained period Where Kim was at least talking and not conducting any missile or nuclear weapons tests. He also ushered in a period of relative stability and communications between North and South Korea, though that relationship has frayed a bit over the past six months as well.
Now the problem has landed in Joe Biden’s lap. He’s the one who wanted this job so badly and now he’s got it. So what will he do? He’s barely mentioned that country since the beginning of the primary and his only recent reference to Kim Jong-un was to call him “a thug.” Not that I disagree with that sentiment, but Biden likely isn’t on Kim’s Christmas card list. Does he even have a plan? His old campaign website has been effectively scrubbed and the “priorities” page on the newly revamped White House page doesn’t even mention anything to do with foreign policy (to say nothing of North Korea specifically) beyond some word salad about “restoring America’s global standing.”
It’s high time that Joe Biden levels with the country and lets us know what his goals are in this matter. Is he going to continue a push for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or will he simply accept that North Korea is going to remain a nuclear power, much as it’s looking like he will do with Iran? And if it’s the former, how does he propose to bring Kim Jong-un to heel? He was happy to criticize Donald Trump’s efforts, so it’s time for him to show us how he can do a better job.