As the new American administration of President Joseph Biden takes over, it looks to be returning to form on North Korea. Biden is a fairly traditional, mild hawk on North Korea. He is not aggressive or a bomber, as former President Donald Trump appeared to be in 2017, but Biden will probably bring Washington back to its long-standing foreign policy on the North of containment, sanction, isolation, and deterrence.
Biden’s hawkishness will rest not just on the long-lasting U.S.-North Korea status quo of stalemate, but also on the North’s botched reaction to the enormous opportunity for a deal aggressively sought by the Trump administration. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un curiously passed on this excellent opportunity, signaling that he likely will not surrender any of the North’s strategic weapons. This remains the core goal of U.S. engagement with North Korea, hence deep engagement, much less a Biden summit, is unlikely.
From 2018 to 2020, Kim had an extraordinary opportunity to pursue a balance-positive deal with the United States and South Korea. Those two countries are the North’s primary geopolitical opponents (Japan too, although somewhat removed). For most of their history, America and South Korea have had presidents who were hawkish on North Korea—not ultras or bombers, but still hawks, committed to the basic package of containment, sanction, isolation, and deterrence.
But from 2018 to 2020, the North faced radically different leaders from those two states. Trump did an about-face from his hawkish war threats of 2017 and suddenly embraced diplomacy, even summit diplomacy. South Korea at the time was (and is still) governed by the president most dovish on North Korea in its history, Moon Jae-In.
This was an astonishing alignment in North Korea’s favor. Where U.S. presidents had traditionally been quite hawkish on the North, Trump suddenly became, for lack of a better word, an ‘operational dove’ on the North. He praised Kim repeatedly in public. He called him his “friend,” described him as “tough” and “strong” (Trump’s favorite adjectives), said he fell “in love” with Kim and received “beautiful letters” from him. And Trump publicly ran down the America’s South Korean ally—calling Moon an “appeaser” and ignoring him in the negotiations with Kim, terming U.S.-South Korean military drills “wargames,” and hinting at the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea.
Trump agreed to meet Kim personally, three times no less, where none of his predecessors had ever done that. Trump also agreed to those meetings without preconditions. Trump might have wrung some concessions out of Pyongyang for these meetings, but he simply gave them up for nothing.
North Korea had been demanding a summit with a U.S. president since the 1970s. It would be a huge prestige bump for the regime. The United States is the primary backer of North Korea’s existential challenger, South Korea. For a North Korean supreme leader to meet a U.S. president would confer a legitimacy on the North it did not have in international affairs, especially after the Cold War ended and North Korea seemed to be a bizarre relic while South Korea had become the ‘real’ Korea. Kim might have traded for this privilege, but Trump just gave it away.
Trump was also an easy negotiating counter-party. He did not prepare for his meetings with Kim. He literally walked off the plane and seemed to assume his ‘art of the deal’ negotiating shtick from Manhattan would be enough. But he did not know the issues very well, as one could tell from his public remarks. Also, Trump quite clearly wanted a deal with the North, because he wanted a Nobel Peace Prize. Trump pushed both the South Korean and Japanese governments to nominate him for it. He likely wanted it because former President Barack Obama had won one, and Trump loathed Obama.
All this meant that Trump was probably willing to make concessions he predecessors never would have agreed to. He did not know the issues very well, did not like South Korea much, and was desperate for the media acclaim of a breakthrough, including winning a Nobel perhaps. For North Korean planners, an American president like this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
If Trump was the most-dovish-on-North-Korea president ever in U.S. history, Moon is the same in South Korean history. Previous liberal presidents in South Korea—Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun—never went as far as Moon has. Like Trump, Moon has solicited the North to the point of fawning. His domestic conservative critics have accused him of acting as North Korea’s foreign minister. Like Trump, Moon seems quite desperate for a deal. He has talked up this idea relentlessly since he came into office in 2017 and has basically pinned the legacy of his entire presidency on a North Korea deal.
His administration continues to insist that North Korea wants to denuclearize. He replaced his previous, globally-minded foreign minister with one deeply focused on North Korea. His government has cracked down on conservative dissenters at home with sharp criticism of North Korean defectors and of anti-North Korean groups releasing balloons intended to float into the North with anti-regime leaflets.
For North Korean planners, this is just about the best possible South Korean president one can imagine. And even better, for three years, Trump and Moon overlapped in office—a unique window of opportunity. These two deal-anxious doves represented the best chance in North Korea’s history to get a balance-positive deal. Yet Kim Jong-un blew it. His best proffered deal—at Hanoi to Trump in 2019—was so balance-negative for the United States that even desperate Trump had to pass it up.
Why Kim forewent this unique bargaining window is a mystery, but when Biden swings to the right on North Korea in the next few years, it will not be hard to figure out why.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.