North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the third day sitting of the Third Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang this month. Photo: AFP / KCNA / KNS

In the waiting game between Pyongyang and Washington as to who will be the first to blink, the US seems far too keen to revive nuclear negotiations with the Kim regime. What is important is how assured the Kim family feels of positive outcomes for itself and is therefore willing to entertain such a possibility. 

Kim Jong Un’s remarks last Friday to his “closed-door” Workers Party plenary urging them to be ready for both diplomacy and confrontation saw US national security adviser Jake Sullivan jump to respond during his ABC Television appearance on Sunday, calling it “an interesting signal,” though Kim had not made any formal “offer” to Washington.

And that’s not all. Sullivan’s remarks were followed on Monday by Sung Kim, US special representative for North Korea – then on a five-day visit to Seoul exploring a revival of talks – offering to meet with the Kim regime “anywhere, any time, without preconditions” whatsoever.

He made at least one more interesting exception by referring to North Korea by its official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as if he were dangling the carrot of a likely peace treaty and a formal recognition of the North Korean regime.

Understandably, world media have gone to town announcing a much-anticipated revival of the US-North Korea nuclear negotiations in the making.

So much so that on Tuesday, Kim Jong Un’s influential sister – seen in West as his likely successor – and lately called a senior party functionary and his foreign-policy plenipotentiary, Kim Yo Jong, warned US President Joe Biden’s administration about harboring “wrong expectations” and how this desperation to showcase some success in US foreign policy might “plunge them into a greater disappointment” than the Americans may be ready to accept.

It seems that the Biden administration has much to learn from former president Donald Trump’s high-octane splash of two summits with Kim Jong Un that crossed the nadir of the late president Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China – a US president traveling all the way to Asia to meet with the authoritarian leader of a nation not yet officially recognized by Washington.

If anything, unlike the 1972 visit that had triggered the historic Sino-American entente, the short-lived encounters of the two Kim-Trump summits proved counterproductive.

Trump’s cliff-jumping from “fire and fury” to “falling in love” commentaries only emboldened the North Korean leader and raised his acceptability at home and around the world.

Consequently, their bloated expectations at the second summit in February 2019 in Hanoi saw it ending abruptly without even a joint statement let alone announcing their much- anticipated next meeting. Soon this uncomfortable Hanoi encounter triggered a series of new missile tests and firepower displays by the Kim regime. 

Hopes were again raised with Biden taking over the Oval Office. Right from the days of candidate Biden’s election speeches, he was widely expected to mark a major shift to reclaim America’s pre-eminence by building bridges with all US friends and allies and re-engaging with all the international alliances and mechanisms that undergird US global leadership. But this only meant changes in tools, and not in national objectives.  

Incidentally, the first two national leaders to pay a physical visit to President Biden in the White House were Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Both have serious stakes in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the fact that their deliberations covered this theme was well publicized by both sides. 

Seoul has even claimed that it has been widely consulted in Biden’s ongoing review of US North Korea policy. 

Indeed, this review of US North Korea policy was initiated soon after Biden took office in January. After these two high-level visits from Japan and South Korea, several contours of the revised draft of the North Korea policy have been leaked to the press publicizing how Biden’s middle-ground approach sans the extremes of either Barack Obama’s “strategic silence” or Trump’s grandstanding strategies.

The Biden administration’s North Korea strategy will focus on a subtle and incremental approach guaranteeing reciprocity, even security of the Kim family, though seeking the same old objective of denuclearization of the peninsula, which, it seems, has become increasingly unrealistic.

Nuclearization of North Korea is a reality that can no longer be denied. For the US, it has further circumscribed its leverage by complicating regional geopolitics.

Negotiations so far have involved talks of the US halting its decade-old annual Foal Eagle military exercises with South Korea, even drawing down its forces from both South Korea and Japan, which have undergirded US pre-eminence across the Indo-Pacific region.

Trump’s decision to suspend the Foal Eagle exercise in June 2018 in the wake of first Kim-Trump summit in Singapore – though the exercises were resumed in November – revived the simmering clamor for self-sufficiency in Seoul and Tokyo reinforcing possibilities of both of these contemplating their own nuclear stockpiles, making the whole exercise counterproductive.  

Indeed, South Korea has had its own share of irritants in its alliance relationship that keep erupting sporadically. This Tuesday, for example, Seoul finally terminated the US-South Korea Coordination Group that was set up during the Trump administration’s engagement with Kim Jong Un. This was meant to fine-tune their coordination of a joint stance vis-à-vis Pyongyang but had since come to be viewed in Seoul as a forum for US to block inter-Korean projects.

This year, the US also finally agreed to Seoul developing ballistic missiles of all ranges, which worried China and annoyed Japan, as it cannot do likewise. The US and its allies taking stronger stances on China has also diminished possibilities of reviving the China-convened Six Party Talks that have been lying suspended for more than six years. 

Now, the coming 10th Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – marking its 50th anniversary – scheduled for August marks another historic milestone for the non-proliferation regime. This is bound to keep the focus on North Korean nuclear and missile technologies at the center stage of global debates as well as US foreign policy. 

The example of the Biden administration having revived the process of engaging Iran – the other major non-proliferation concern – has its limits. Tehran remains several notches away from weaponizing, even though Ebrahim Raisi’s taking over the presidency could further complicate the possibilities of Iran returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015. 

But unlike the JCPOA-bound aspirant nuclear-weapons state of Iran, dealing with North Korea, which has been developing its missiles and nuclear-weapons stockpiles for more than 15 years, would require the Biden administration to make serious concessions and compromises. That should call for back-channel and closed-door diplomacy.

So it remains a puzzle how Biden’s much-publicized approach to opening talks with the Kim regime is going to square this circle of awkward conundrums that has come to be one critical acid test for America reclaiming its global leadership.

Professor Swaran Singh is chairman of the Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.