When President Biden hosts South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday, the new White House approach to North Korea will likely be top of the agenda.
Biden is the latest United States president forced to contend with a nuclear-armed North Korea that is bombastic and hostile toward the U.S. and its allies in the region.
South Korea’s Moon is nearing the end of his term in office, and he has invested a lot of political capital into trying to resolve tensions on the Korean peninsula. Moon has urged the Biden administration to move forward with attempting to reach some sort of agreement with North Korea.
For his part, Biden is trying to forge a middle ground that leaves room for diplomatic outreach, but also manages expectations.
“Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in late April. “Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].”
It was former President Donald Trump who tried to reach that elusive grand bargain, staging two high-stakes summits with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. After threatening Kim with “fire and fury,” Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader. Trump lavished Kim with praise and promised economic prosperity, if the regime completely dismantled its nuclear program.
But the deal never materialized.
Former President Barack Obama took a more hands-off approach, but that also did not meet with much success.
Trump’s aggressive top-level diplomacy gives Biden more latitude to pursue outreach, said Patrick Cronin, of the Hudson Institute.
“It gives Biden more room for diplomacy, because you’ve already had an American president conduct summit meetings,” Cronin said. “So that gives space for Biden, below the presidential level, to do quite a bit of talking.”
The White House has reached out to North Korea through diplomatic channels. The goal is to see if it’s possible to get Kim to take small steps toward denuclearization, in exchange for proportionate relief from the U.S.
Cronin says the key to an incremental approach will be deciding what’s a fair exchange.
“The problem is North Korea keeps looking for a bargain, meaning sanctions relief for doing very little,” he said. “And the Biden administration is not going to go that far.”
The Biden administration would also have to contend with the political repercussions of any agreement that might be reached.
“It will face criticism that it’s not comprehensive enough, that the North Koreans will cheat or they’ll walk away from the deal when they’ve received some initial benefits,” said Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official focused on nuclear nonproliferation. “So there’s no question that it will be a hard sell.”
Einhorn also said there’s no consensus on what steps North Korea could take that would merit some type of relief.
It’s not clear, though, that North Korea even wants to make a deal.
Victor Cha, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the success of Biden’s policy will really depend on Kim.
“Whatever policy they come out with, it’s almost immaterial in the sense that the North Koreans have to show that they’re interested in talking,” Cha said. “What they’ve shown thus far is they have a violent interest in not talking to the United States or to South Korea or to anybody right now.”