With the US presidential election just days ahead, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has not said much about his policy on the Korean Peninsula.
All he has said so far is that the leader of the North Korean regime is a thug, and he will meet with Kim Jong-un only if Pyongyang agrees to draw down its nuclear capacity as a precondition.
During the final presidential debate last week, Biden said that when the Chinese asked why the US was moving its missile defense up so close and continuing its military maneuvers with South Korea, he told China, “It’s because North Korea is a problem, and we’re going to continue to do it so we can control them.”
Biden said he told the Chinese, “If you want to do something about it, step up and help. If not, it’s going to continue.”
He also said Trump has “legitimized North Korea,” referring to the North’s leader Kim as a thug, adding that Trump “talks about how we’re better off. And they have much more capable missiles, able to reach US territory much more easily.”
Biden’s Democratic Party has traditionally emphasized multilateral cooperation and a process-oriented negotiation on North Korean issues.
Things have changed, however, as US President Donald Trump’s much-hyped summitry with Kim made North Korea, the traditional hermit, a country at the center of greater global attention.
More importantly, more Americans now see the North’s nuclear arsenal as a threat to their own territory.
Biden is therefore likely to take a stronger or more proactive approach compared to the “strategic patience” policy of the Obama administration, observers say.
Choi Kang, acting president of Asan Institute for Policy Studies, thinks Biden will “try to confirm the North’s commitment to denuclearization through its actions.”
Kim Hyun-wook, chief of US research at the state-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said Biden’s North Korea policy will likely be a stringent one based on sanctions.
“He seems to be willing to negotiate in earnest on the North’s denuclearization, and the official goal of the talks would be a complete and verifiable denuclearization,” Kim said.
“But there is an arms control working group within the Biden camp, and what these guys were saying is that the US should pursue a more realistic North Korea policy.”
Unlike some observers who say the US will not sit for talks without a road map on what North Korea will do over the course of its denuclearization, KNDA’s Kim thinks even a step-by-step disarmament process could be possible.
“A mutual disarmament process, like how the US and Russia (agreed to reduce the number of strategic nuclear missiles launchers) under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, could be possible,” he said.
When Biden said during the debate that he would meet with Kim Jong-un if he agrees to “draw down” his nuclear capacity, Choi said he got the slight feeling that the longtime member and former chair of the US Senate foreign relations committee may be considering limited denuclearization, as opposed to complete denuclearization, as an option.
Survey results have shown that a growing number of South Koreans, both pundits and the general public, believe that the totalitarian regime is highly unlikely to give up its nukes.
Many think that Pyongyang is not going to proclaim that they will get rid of all their nuclear weapons, missiles and related facilities, but would be willing to gradually draw down their nuclear capacity as long as they get something in return.
“After the failure at Hanoi (in summit talks between Trump and Kim to reach a deal in early 2019), Pyongyang has turned hardline internally, and they view the current international political situation as a new Cold War between the US and China,” Kim said.
As North Korea sides with its communist ally China, but uses the US as a card to get what it wants from Beijing, it won’t be easy to begin denuclearization talks with Pyongyang, according to the KNDA professor.
Park In-hwi, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, also said Biden and the US Congress, where Democrats are expected to hold a majority, would have a more “rigorous” set of criteria on North Korean issues.
“It is true that the cost Washington will have to pay to get Pyongyang to denuclearize is going up. But it will be difficult to have denuclearization talks without an actual road map” on the denuclearization process, Park said.
On South Korea, Biden is likely to call for closer trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan, according to Park and Choi, as the Democratic Party stresses international cooperation with its allies.
Biden could also make diplomatic efforts to make Seoul speak up against Pyongyang’s human rights violations, Choi said.
Biden, if elected, will seek to “restore” US alliance with South Korea, especially by promptly reaching an agreement on the sharing of defense costs for US troops here, according to Choi.
“I think it will take at least six months for his administration to review their Korea policy. But they will work on reaching a Special Measures Agreement as soon as possible to restore the alliance,” Choi said.
SMA negotiations have been deadlocked for months as the US demands an unprecedented increase in South Korea’s contribution.
Unlike Trump, Biden is also likely to respect the US military’s position on the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul, according to Choi.
“As agreed between the two sides, the OPCON transfer could take place slowly as the conditions have not been met due to North Korea’s nuclear threats,” he said.
Kim, on the other hand, said South Korea’s relations with the US are not that bad to begin with.
Regardless of who gets elected, the conditions that helped Trump win four years ago -- Americans’ widespread skepticism over US’ costly global leadership and their strong anti-China sentiment -- will not change, according to Kim.
By Kim So-hyun (email@example.com