America’s two main presidential candidates have expressed different ideas about policy toward nuclear-armed North Korea.
President Donald Trump has expanded the U.S. relationship with North Korea. Early in his term, he threatened to “totally destroy” the country. Later, he became the first siting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is competing against Trump in the November presidential election. He has promised a more traditional policy. He has also signaled a more antagonistic relationship toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Biden has called the leader a “dictator” and a “thug.” North Korea answered Biden’s words with insults.
When he accepted the nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Biden promised that the “days of cozying up to dictators” would be over if he wins in November.
Biden said he would increase sanctions and work with allies as well as China to pressure North Korea.
Strategic patience again?
Many experts say they have heard Biden’s ideas about North Korea before. As vice president, Biden helped oversee former President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience.” Its goal was to place economic and military pressure on North Korea until the country was ready to negotiate.
Biden has not used the phrase “strategic patience” to describe his plans. But his administration might end up with a policy of “strategic patience by default” if it does not offer some kind of action to get “the North Koreans back to negotiations,” said Jenny Town. She is a North Korea specialist with the Washington D.C.-based Stimson Center, a research group.
Observers say Biden’s campaign comments suggest that he is not interested in meeting with Kim anytime soon. Biden has said he would not continue Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim. He said it gives the North Korean leader too much importance.
Instead, Biden promised to give more power to negotiators working on North Korea in an article in Foreign Affairs. He suggested that the diplomatic interaction would take place at lower levels at first.
The Trump administration’s limited success
Trump and Kim met three times, including on June 2018 in Singapore. At the end of that meeting, the two signed a general agreement to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But working-level talks slowed and North Korea walked away.
Trump and Kim continued to exchange personal letters, even after North Korea restarted short-range missile tests last year. Trump says North Korea has not launched long-distance missiles or held nuclear tests because of his relationship with leader Kim Jong Un.
But Trump's friendship with Kim has not kept North Korea from continuing to quietly develop nuclear weapons. North Korea is estimated to have as many as 60 nuclear bombs, with the ability to produce several more each year.
Trump says he can make progress during a second term. He recently said he would reach a deal with North Korea “very quickly” if re-elected. But observers warn that Trump's North Korea policy will likely continue to be unpredictable.
What would a new policy look like?
There is no guarantee that a return to Obama’s strategic patience would have any results.
“Strategic patience was not so effective in terms of stopping or even slowing down the progress of North Korea’s ICBM or nuclear capability,” said Bong Young-shik, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
From 2009 to 2016, North Korea carried out four nuclear tests. It also made progress on its ballistic missile program. It carried out another nuclear test in 2017 under Trump.
“It is time for you to deal with the problem as it is,” Bong said.
A senior South Korean Blue House official who spoke to VOA last year said a return to “strategic patience” would not be useful. That is because North Korea already has the nuclear weapons it has long sought.
“Strategic patience -- what would we be waiting for?” the South Korean official asked.
A growing number of nuclear policy experts believe the United States should do something else. They say the country should place importance on reducing North Korea's nuclear weapons and making sure they are not used.
What will North Korea do?
Much will likely depend on how North Korea acts.
At the beginning of 2020, Kim warned he no longer feels limited by his freeze on long-range missile or nuclear tests. He also threatened to soon show off a new “strategic weapon.”
But since those comments, North Korea has had to deal with the coronavirus crisis, disastrous floods and heavy rains. International sanctions continue to hold back North Korea’s economy.
State media have at times suggested some action timed for the U.S. election. However, Kim may be reluctant to do anything that reduces the chances for diplomacy.
In July, Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s increasingly powerful sister, said her country has “no intention of threatening the United States...if they don’t touch us and hurt us.”
"We are not saying we are not going to denuclearize,” she said. “But we cannot denuclearize now.”
I’m Mario Ritter Jr.
Bill Gallo reported this story for VOANEWS. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
antagonistic –adj. showing opposition or anger
cozying up –v. to become friendly with
sanctions –n. punishments usually in the form of trade restrictions that are meant to force a country to obey international law
strategic –adj. related to a larger plan meant to reach a big goal in war, diplomacy or politics
by default –phrase what happens when nothing else is done to affect and outcome
realm –n. an area of activity, interest or knowledge
ballistic –adj. describing a weapon that can be shot at great speed over a long distance
reluctant –n. showing doubt or unwillingness to do something
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