Relations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea reached intense heights of bellicosity during President Donald Trump’s first 18 months in office. Jingoistic rhetoric, underground nuclear tests, detentions and deaths of US citizens, and missile tests – just to name a few – marked the beginning of what many predicted would to be an inevitable path to destabilization of the Korean Peninsula and potential conflict.
With John Bolton soon to be at the helm as national security adviser, many believed military force would be used. B-1 bombers carried out mock missile launches off the South Korean coast and North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. President Trump promised to “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury” if they didn’t back down.
Trump’s bellicosity and strongman approach to dealing with the regime surprisingly worked, and, by June 2018, Trump and Kim Jong Un had direct talks at the Singapore Summit. Trump gave Kim an ultimatum: Peace and prosperity or destruction and decay.
The following February, two days of talks at the Hanoi Summit occurred. Trump and Kim spoke again, joined by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, at a brief DMZ Summit in June 2019.
Although Bolton bragged in his book The Room Where It Happened about intentionally sabotaging these talks, two things are for certain. The talks resulted in no more nuke or missile tests and paved the way for inter-Korean rapprochement.
Biden and Strategic Patience 2.0
As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter office, two things are apparent. He will form a multilateral “strategic patience” containment bloc and there’s a high likelihood that North Korea will conduct weapons tests as a way of sizing up the new administration.
Strategic Patience 2.0 will look very much the same as Strategic Patience did under president Barack Obama. The policy of non-engagement without complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) will be a non-starter for the North Koreans and they will likely revert to behaving like they did during the Obama administration – nuclear and missile tests galore.
CVID under Covid-19 challenges aside, the policy of no talks without CVID will disrupt two years of “peace through strength” progress made between the US and North Korea.
A last-minute Trumpian intervention
It’s often said that only Nixon could go to China. The same would seem to be the case with Trump and North Korea.
During his lame-duck period, Trump could launch his own “70 day speed battle” and work quickly to establish a US embassy in Pyongyang while also easing some travel-ban restrictions to allow for citizen engagement projects while still keeping tourism off the table.
This would keep communications open between the US and North Korea – far better than the “New York Channel” – so when the regime tests Biden he doesn’t overreact, igniting a new conflict spiral and destabilizing the region.
A US embassy would make conversation and information gathering more efficient. Without a presence on the ground, we are at a huge disadvantage, especially as North Korea has an advantageous presence in New York.
After leaving office, Trump could then, thanks to his own policies, continue talks with the North Korean leadership as a former president who worked hard to improve relations as a way of maintaining peace and stability.
Biden’s asset or adversary?
After leaving office with a bruised ego, Trump will surely be seeking recognition for his successes on the Korean Peninsula, in the form of a Nobel Peace Prize, so he would likely try reaching out to the DPRK regime to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula.
Biden, seeking to avoid confrontation with the regime and escalated tensions, might benefit from Trumpian diplomacy, so their interests could align.
After a brutal campaign against each other, only time will tell if the two presidents can lead by example for the common causes of uniting to solve problems and bringing healing to divided nations.