If there is one thing that’s encouraging with high-stakes geopolitics is “strategic learning”: namely, the ability of nation-states to learn from past mistakes and embrace new and innovative solutions to seemingly intractable challenges.
This reassuring dynamic has been on full display with respect to America’s approach on nuclear proliferation issue in the past decade. The Barack Obama administration rightly took a leap of faith, which led to a successful negotiation of a historic nuclear deal with Iran—providing a real-time and verifiable mechanism to allow both sides to avoid direct conflict and address their respective national security concerns.
As for the Donald Trump administration, it took its chance by conducting not one but two unprecedent summits with the North Korean leadership. This paved the way for direct negotiations over the future of peace in the Korean Peninsula in ways unimaginable only years earlier.
In both case, Washington recognized that sanctions and external pressure won’t deter a determined and threatened regime. The path forward, therefore, is sincere engagement and patient diplomacy.
The case of North Korea has proven even more complicated since, unlike in the case of Iran, there is an active nuclear weapons program in play. Since the end of Korean War in the early 1950s, the ruling elite in Pyongyang has shown its uncanny ability to overcome the most punishing sanctions and ignore the most menacing threats in order to become a “full-fledged” nuclear power.
Where there is strategic determination, there tends to be strategic dividends over the long run in face of hardship and risks in between.
The Joseph Biden administration, therefore, has a historic opportunity to learn from the shortcomings of its predecessors in order to adopt the most viable approach to the North Korean question.
While the Obama administration shunned direct engagement with then North Korea’s new leadership under Kim Jung-un, the Trump administration unwisely reneged on the Iranian nuclear deal in ways that undermined America’s reliability as a negotiating partner.
But now, there is an unprecedented opportunity for the incoming American leadership to move in the right direct on both fronts, namely the restoration of the United Nations-backed Iran nuclear deal as well as continuation of direct engagement with Pyongyang.
In this sense, the Biden administration could pick the best elements of its predecessors’ strategy on nuclear proliferation, while negating the negatives of both the Obama and Trump presidencies.
Unlike both his immediate predecessors, the incoming American president can lean on decades of experience in foreign policy, including long years as vice-president of the United States. And he has the benefit of hindsight, which will allow him to finetune the more effective aspects of American policy towards North Korea in recent years.
Ultimately, Biden has both the cognitive appreciation as well as strategic patience to conduct the kind of sustained, multi-phased, and sophisticated series of negotiations, which could finally unlock the North Korean nuclear puzzle.
And following the historic Trump-Kim summits, the prospect of direct negotiations to facilitate a long-term solution to the crisis in the Korean Peninsula is no longer a strategic taboo. Make no mistake, Pyongyang is still a hermit kingdom with a brutal regime that boasts nuclear weapons. But now, North Korea is led by a less atavistic millennial leadership that is not obsessed with isolation, seeks a measure of economic prosperity, and seems intent on breaking out of its long held status as a Stalinist dystopia.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic and columnist who was part of an official delegation of Asia-Pacific scholars to North Korea in 2018. He is the author of, among other works, “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”