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The hard truths about North Korea that Trump or Biden will have to confront

While it’s likely there will be no diplomatic movement with North Korea before January, 2021, whomever wins the election will have to cast aside ideas that are continuously tried and have consistently failed.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Before President Obama departed the White House, he gave his successor, Donald Trump, some advice: pay attention to North Korea, because the reclusive nation will be your top national security priority.

As one might expect, President Trump has tackled the North Korea file in his own distinct way. In a blink of an eye, the conventional tactics Washington used against Pyongyang over the previous 30 years were replaced with threats of war and the kind of spur-of-the-moment summitry only a TV journalist could love.

Cutting through the mid-level bureaucrats and meeting directly with Kim Jong Un was quintessential Trump. The fact that much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, including some of his own security advisers, opposed Trump’s in-person meetings with Kim was evidence enough that Trump may have been on to something with this high-stakes diplomatic gamble.

Of course, the results of Trump’s unconventional approach to talks with the North have proven to be as disappointing as Obama’s policy of strategic patience. If it seemed like Washington and Pyongyang were at the beginning of a new, groundbreaking bilateral relationship after the June 2018 Singapore summit, the two countries today are like two divorcees who want nothing to do with each other.

After the excitement ended, the United States and North Korea reverted back to their own corners, each viewing the other as the uncooperative, malicious party solely responsible for the lack of diplomatic progress.

The last time negotiators from both sides were in the same room was nearly a year ago, when the North Korean delegation made a show out of the meeting in Stockholm by angrily walking out and strongly protesting Washington’s purported “failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.” In the 10 months since, U.S.-North Korea diplomacy can best be compared to an immovable slug slowly dying on a hot sidewalk. The Trump administration is now relegated to whispering the same platitudes from administrations past about denuclearization.

North Korea is hardly top-of-mind for the American people. Nor should it be. With an ongoing national health crisis (nearly 185,000 Americans have died from COVID-19), the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, and spiraling health care costs, Americans quite frankly have far more important things to worry about. 

Yet the North Korean issue isn’t going to magically disappear. The question now is whether Donald Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have a realistic plan to manage it. 

Unfortunately, Trump and Biden don’t inspire much confidence. In August, Trump declared with his usual bombastic flare that he would “very quickly” arrive at a nuclear agreement with the North in his second term but failed to specify what metrics he would use to guide negotiations and what concessions he would be willing to put on the table.

Biden, meanwhile, wants to out-hawk Trump on North Korea by calling for the well-worn carrot-and-stick (mostly stick) framework that dominated the Obama years. Biden has not only said he would need preconditions to be met before negotiating with Kim personally, but he also says he would pressure China to enforce the various U.N. Security Council Resolutions which aim to drain the Kim dynasty’s finances and force it to cease its work on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But Biden didn’t explain just how he would get Beijing to help the United States, particularly at a time when relations between the two economic giants have been rapidly deteriorating.

Regardless of who has the privilege of representing the American people next year, the next U.S. administration won’t get anywhere with North Korea if it doesn’t cast aside many commonly-held beliefs on the issue, and it should start with acknowledging the U.S.’s own role in the North being metaphorically described as the “land of lousy options.”  

First, we must dispel this notion that North Korea can’t be trusted to negotiate. There is a widespread assumption in the Beltway that the Kim dynasty is pre-programmed to be duplicitous and dishonest — and that even if the North Koreans are amenable to talking, it’s either a clever tactic to string the U.S. along or a way to divide the Security Council and break up the sanctions regime.

But this is more cliche than reality. While it’s certainly true that Pyongyang eventually violated the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated during the Clinton administration, it’s also true that the U.S. wasn’t exactly holding up its end of the bargain either. Implementation was spotty throughout and U.S. compliance, particularly on the shipment of heavy fuel oil to the North, was riddled with delays.

Nor is it accurate to argue that the Kim dynasty is implacably resistant to compromise. As former U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci wrote last year, Washington has “a tendency to approach engagement with the North Koreans with a strange combination of ignorance and arrogance about what they are really about."

Second, we always hear that North Korea is too irrational to deal with. You can forgive the American public for looking at North Korea and thinking the entire country was run by a crop of lunatics with a messiah complex. The weird uniforms, the massive, synchronized marches, the constant missile firings, the adulation of a single family — all of these qualities open North Korea up to criticism that it’s an irrational cult bent on world destruction. 

Yet Kim Jong Un’s actions over his 9-year tenure have been anything but irrational. Put aside the hero worship and funny haircuts and North Korea has shown itself to be an unremarkable authoritarian state — vicious to internal critics and harsh to its enemies, but quite cognizant of where the red-lines are and what kind of aggression would result in an extreme U.S. military response. Far from a grave national security threat to the U.S., the Kim dynasty is more like an entity whose chief obsession — staying in power — also restrains it from acting recklessly. 

Third, Washington seems to be addicted to this constantly failed notion that we can denuclearize North Korea quickly.U.S. policy has long centered on North Korea’s full, complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Declassified U.S. government documents going back to the George H.W. Bush presidency have shown just how important this goal has been — and remains — to the Washington foreign policy community. Unfortunately, this same goal has eluded U.S. policymakers for decades and is highly unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future. 

Reality has a habit of pouring ice water on the loftiest of ambitions. And the reality has been pretty clear for some time: coercing a state to swear off a nuclear weapons program is far more difficult when it already possesses nuclear weapons. No country in history has constructed several dozen nuclear warheads, only to trade them for political and economic goodies. Given its immediate environment, security fears, and the high priority it places on self-reliance, the chances of North Korea handing over the most effective deterrent a state can have is about as likely as somebody walking into a market and picking up a million-dollar lottery ticket.

Every U.S. president comes into office thinking they can make history by solving the world’s toughest problems. More often than not, those same presidents leave the job after four or eight years disappointed and chastened by the experience. If Trump or Biden hope to avoid those same pitfalls in relation to North Korea, they will need to accept the cold, hard reality that the best the United States is likely to do is manage the portfolio. That itself would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.

President Donald J. Trump, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un, and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in talk together Sunday, June 30, 2019, outside Freedom House at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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