Will the new Biden Administration make progress on relations with North Korea? Despite challenges, active and bold diplomacy should be given a chance. The vision of a comprehensive settlement must be put forward. Such a comprehensive settlement would include not only the nuclear issue, but also peace treaties and economic development: in short, a formula for “Two Koreas, One Peninsula”.
The U.S. has had a presence in the Asia Pacific region for over two centuries. In the late 19th century, China took the initiative to facilitate U.S. relations with Korea. Has Washington lost the capacity for the creative diplomacy shown four decades ago, in the U.S. opening to China or in the détente with Russia? Can the U.S. work with China and Russia on Northeast Asian issues?
The last administration in Washington was full of sound and fury that signified little. Relations with China and Russia were set back considerably, relations with allies were unsettled, and relations with North Korea were fruitless.
Can President Joe Biden do better? In his favor, he has a thoroughly professional team unlike the former administration. Given the extent of damage the last administration did to U.S. relations in Asia, some time will be needed to reassess and to develop realistic policy.
Absent from all discussion of the North Korean issue in the U.S. has been a vision of Northeast Asia and regional integration that includes North Korea. Former U.S. administrations avoided the regional and major power context, and corporate media in the U.S. promoted hysteria about Pyongyang while ignoring the regional context.
Although Biden’s initial focus must be on internal affairs given the urgency of the Covid crisis and the economy, some initial moves externally are not to be ruled out. In fact, the administration has already begun initial contacts with allies, surely with more to follow.
Biden himself has emphasized rebuilding relations with U.S. allies and resuming international leadership. Ever the “establishment figure,” Biden is not expected to drift from elite consensus on foreign policy. The composition of his team reflects a solid Establishment orientation unlike that of the previous administration.
No doubt Biden’s accession to power relieved anxieties and uncertainties of U.S. allies. But questions remain as to the specifics of Biden foreign policy. Although it is too early for details, it seems the administration will continue the elite consensus on China and Russia.
Whatever adjectives are used to characterize the relationship with China the geopolitics of U.S. policy are unchanged. “Containment” of the Eurasian landmass in some manner has been a fixed objective of U.S. policy since World War II and the Cold War. The Obama pivot, and the Trump trade and tech wars underscored the commitment to and the continuity of a “containment” approach in some form.
Will the Biden administration be sufficiently flexible to repair and stabilize relations with China? Without that addressing the North Korean question would be premature. The administration has already emphasized that consultation with Asian allies is a priority. Strengthening the Japan alliance and the U.S. “hub and spokes” security structure are indicated.
But consultations with allies should not imply handing them a veto over U.S. foreign policy options. It is to be expected that conservative forces in Japan and South Korea will resist engagement with North Korea. Biden will also face internal opposition to engagement with North Korea by assorted U.S. hawks ranging from Neoconservatives to assorted Cold Warriors.
Will the Biden administration be sufficiently flexible to adopt a realistic approach to diplomacy with North Korea? The previous administration killed any progress by insisting on maximalist demands. Phased “step by step” diplomacy was rejected and thus substantive engagement was foreclosed. The new administration will need to reflect carefully on its diplomatic strategy as well as on its objectives.
For example, will Washington view the North Korea question in an overall context? Such a context can be one of Northeast Asia as a region. This brings in stakeholders such as China and Russia in addition to Japan and South Korea and the prospect of multilateral diplomacy. Can Washington bring itself to undertake a form of Great Power diplomacy with China and Russia to make progress on resolving North Korean and regional issues?
What about the regional economic dimension? North Korea is in economic crisis with increasing hardship befalling its citizens. Sanctions as a form of economic warfare have taken their toll. Does the U.S. want Northeast Asia to be a region of peace and development? Relaxation of U.S. economic warfare against North Korea could provide some incentive for diplomacy by Pyongyang.
U.S. policy to date has not included regional economic development as a means to stabilize the situation on the Korean Peninsula, or in the region. Economic integration can play an important role in this regard. The energy and transportation sectors certainly can become major components of regional economic development. Economic development is an obvious and potentially powerful incentive for North Korea to play a constructive role rather than a spoiler role in the region.
The DPRK participates in the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asia Security, which includes discussion of economic issues. Mongolia, which has had good relations with the DPRK, has energy resources to put into the economic integration mix. Practical cooperation on energy can spur infrastructure and other regional development projects.
Certainly bilateral economic relations between North and South Korea would improve with diplomatic progress, but the regional context must be considered at the same time. The economic interests of China, Russia, and Japan are bound up in Northeast Asia, and so is the economic interest of Mongolia. A comprehensive settlement would encompass the economic dimension, to promote stability engendered by peace and development.
What about formal peace treaties to end the Korean War? Certainly, they should be part and parcel of a comprehensive regional settlement. There are no such peace treaties between North Korea and South Korea, or between the U.S. and North Korea. And we can ask - what about China? This formal aspect of the diplomatic and security situation unfortunately remains frozen in time.
Given President Biden’s decades long experience in international affairs and given the professionalism of his team, it is to be hoped that substantial progress can be made on outstanding issues in Northeast Asia. A clear vision, realistic policy, and a comprehensive settlement are necessary.