After review, White House sees limits to North Korea diplomacy

Politics

The Biden administration said Friday it has completed a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea and suggested it has limited hopes of brokering a “grand bargain” to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.

The administration said it would conduct the review soon after Biden took office in January as it sought to gauge the path forward following former President Donald Trump’s engagement efforts with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which failed to persuade Pyongyang to de-nuclearize.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the completion of the review but did not offer details on the findings. She said Biden administration officials consulted outside experts, allies and predecessors from several previous administrations as part of the process.

“Our goal remains the complete de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with a clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administrations have not achieved this objective,” Psaki told reporters on Air Force One as Biden traveled to Philadelphia.

“Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” she said. Instead, the administration will take a “practical approach” that will explore diplomacy with North Korea and aim for “practical progress” to increase the security of the U.S. and its allies.

Biden, like his old boss Barack Obama, has confirmed that he sees North Korea as perhaps the most delicate foreign policy quandary for the United States and its allies. But Psaki’s suggestion that the administration won’t rely on “strategic patience” in its approach suggests that Biden may be shifting toward a more middle-ground approach between that of Obama and Trump’s deeply personal effort to persuade Kim to denuclearize for sanctions relief.

With the statement, the Biden administration also appeared to signal it is trying to set the stage for incremental progress, in which denuclearization steps by the North would be met with corresponding actions, including sanctions relief, from the U.S.

To be sure, there was no mention of U.S. security guarantees for North Korea or a formal end to the Korean War, both of which had been demanded by the North and considered by the Trump team as part of a larger package.

The Biden administration is expected to be focused less on developing rapport with Kim and more on consulting with Japan and South Korea, both of which had looked askance at Trump’s attempts to cultivate Kim as a friend or elevate him to the level of an international statesman.

Biden administration officials have been consulting with Trump administration officials who took part in the Singapore talks between Kim and Trump in June 2018 as well as a second meeting in February 2019.

The last face-to-face talks between senior officials from the two countries were held in Sweden in October 2019, and efforts by the Biden administration to resume a dialogue have been rebuffed.

North Korea fired short-range missiles in March, just days after the sister of Kim Jong Un threatened the United States and South Korea for holding joint military exercises. Those tests were not prohibited under United Nations sanctions.

Days later, the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea in a defiance of U.N. resolutions that ban such launches by North Korea.

The missile launches followed a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea last month as Washington pushes to restore its alliances in Asia.

During the trip, Blinken sternly criticized North Korea’s nuclear program and human rights record and pressed China to use its “tremendous influence” to convince the North to denuclearize.

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