Can Biden Repair Relations with North Korea?

For many, the January 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden restored faith in Washington’s ability to repair its global leadership. Former President Donald Trump’s aggressively protectionist attitude toward North Korea, in particular, has tarnished the U.S.’ image as a benevolent hegemon. 

The past four years resulted in weak and volatile U.S.-North Korea relations; but, Biden’s outward-oriented posture starkly contrasts with that of Trump. As North Korea proliferated their nuclear weapons program, Trump responded to every nuclear threat staunchly, signaling a potential war if need be. 

With a new administration in the White House, the United States now has a chance to ease tensions with North Korea and encourage dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. 

Under President Obama’s administration, the approach towards Pyongyang focused on incremental change. In 2008 and 2009, Obama emphasized the need to interact and engage with North Korea “without preconditions.” He affirmed that while difficult, working with communist governments, like those in Cuba and North Korea, would be beneficial for the entire international community. Obama’s willingness to meet with strongman Kim Jong-Un was met with harsh criticism, particularly from conservatives and human rights groups. Some viewed his efforts as weak. Conservatives expressed that meeting with enemies would “lower the prestige of the office of the president.” After Obama, Trump reversed course and deeply strained the progress Obama had made with Kim Jong-Un, resulting in several instances of nuclear threats toward the United States. 

In contrast, conservatives applauded Trump as he met with Kim Jong-un during his presidency, praising his efforts to aggressively denuclearize North Korea. Unlike Obama’s “strategic patience,” Trump demanded a top-down approach to North Korea’s complete denuclearization, offering the incremental removal of financial sanctions. To Trump’s dismay, the Hanoi Summit in 2019 ended in Kim’s refusal to accept any form of denuclearization. Still, Trump garnered conservative support as the false potential for North Korean disarmament led to the expression: “If North Korea disarms, President Trump’s Nobel Peace Prize would be well deserved.” 

Even Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said a full-fledged war would be “worth it in terms of long-term stability and national security.” Many argue that Trump’s business mindset might have aided in dismantling Kim’s nuclear weapons program. However, soft power and traditionally diplomatic skills from the Biden administration will likely prove to advance U.S.-North Korea relations. 

Biden’s plans to reverse many of Trump’s foreign policies suggest that relations with North Korea will progress. The Obama administration did not have a weak approach toward Kim, despite partisan criticism, and emphasized that military involvement may be necessary if North Korea does not cooperate. Obama’s plan of North Korean denuclearization before easing restrictions should be followed through during Biden’s presidency, but with a bottom-up approach. Before any high-level summit is held, Washington must establish high-level methods of private communication with Pyongyang. 

Already, however, a challenge is clear. In early January 2021,North Korea labeled the United States as its primary enemy. The Biden administration should not plan to host a large summit in an official manner, but in private discussions. In the past, the United States has made deals with North Korea which were misconstrued as simply improving America’s reputation. 

In addition to dealing with North Korean denuclearization, the United States must repair relations with South Korea. Coordination with South Korea will further pressure Kim to accept incremental disarmament. Pursuing peace on the Korean peninsula can incentivize North Korea to change its alignment towards cooperation in exchange for sanction removal, economic advancement and an enhanced reputation. As detailed in the 2018 Singapore Declaration, the United States should work towards normalizing relations on the Korean peninsula. To do so, Biden must eradicate the hostile atmosphere that Trump exacerbated during his presidency. Building military preparedness along the Demilitarized Zone, dividing the north and south, is vital to protecting their citizens. Peace on the peninsula will never be achieved with an aggressive attitude. 

Amid Biden’s new presidency, North Korea plans to hone its military power in an effort to hinder American power. Kim’s attempts to modernize its weapons system include a 15,000 km range missile. North Korea’s military development can serve as bait to convince the United States to slowly lift sanctions in exchange for minuscule denuclearization. To avoid military aggression, the Biden administration must arrange working-level negotiations to effectively mitigate tensions and the destruction of an entire population. Trump’s staunch approach towards denuclearization can be implemented, but with cautious language and private negotiations. Trump’s style of riling up allies to attack the enemy is not the approach Biden can continue. By amassing the collective hatred of many allies, North Korea has even more reason to pursue nuclear aggression and refuse any negotiation. 

Incremental denuclearization in exchange for sanction relief is the most effective route for the Biden administration. Conducting these negotiations in a private setting will allow both parties to not put on a “show” and instead discuss what they truly need in order to repair relations. 

Biden must not accept Pyongyang as a nuclear power, but grant concessions and offer greater market access to North Korea. However, these concessions may only be offered if Kim feels inclined to denuclearize in any capacity. 

Ultimately, Biden’s presidency will likely improve U.S.-North Korean relations exponentially — but it will take some time. Regardless, there is hope for a more peaceful international community. 

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Hannah Keenan

Hannah Keenan is junior majoring in International Relations Global Business and minoring in Chinese for the Professions. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Growing up in a part-Chinese family, she has always been fascinated by the Chinese language and have been studying it since high school. She loves learning about the financial and legal aspects of international affairs, which she hopes to pursue a career in someday. At USC, Hannah is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Service Fraternity and Pi Beta Phi.

hkeenan@usc.edu