(ATTN: UPDATES with additional remarks in paras 11-14)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 (Yonhap) -- The next U.S. administration would be inclined, if not forced, to employ a different approach toward North Korea regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election, given the changes in the environment and apparent failure of the incumbent administration to rein in the communist state's nuclear ambitions, experts here said Thursday.
They also noted the North Korean issue would likely be put aside in the early stages of the new administration, which they said will be too caught up in dealing with its own domestic issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think (the) second highest priority is going to be, or maybe the highest priority, will be pandemic recovery," Susan Thornton, former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in a virtual seminar hosted by New York-based think tank, the Korea Society.
"This will sort of consume any administration that comes in in January, I think, not only dealing with the health crisis but certainly dealing with the economic recovery and the fallout from the pandemic," she added.
Thornton insisted a Joe Biden administration would likely get more progress on the North Korean issue than President Donald Trump, but that Biden would first seek to realign the country's foreign policy in general.
"I think that on North Korea, it's my view that a Biden administration would be much more likely to get progress on this issue than a second Trump administration would be, and that the Biden ministration would work with the ROK and other partners to set up a process to try to get there. That said, this is not going to be the top of the list of priorities for a new administration," she said, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.
She predicted a change in the U.S. administration to lead to a North Korean provocation shortly after the election.
"I think that we can expect probably a provocation from the North after the election to bring the issue back into the focus of attention for the new administration," said Thornton.
Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, agreed.
"I think that it is prudent to anticipate, particularly in the event of a Biden administration, that we should expect some provocations from North Korea. That's certainly the playbook that is familiar to us from the past," he told the webinar.
They both expressed doubt the communist North would stage an "October surprise" provocation before the Nov. 3 presidential election.
"I heavily discount the possibility of an October surprise coming from North Korea or China or other adversaries, just given that most of those parties do not want to disrupt the election, or think that whatever provocation they might entertain would not have the intended result," said Thornton.
Russel argued a pre-election event may not have much of an impact on the election.
"We've had surprises, more surprises, I think, (than) most American voters can handle already in the campaign and, frankly, they haven't really moved the needle all that much. So I'm not convinced that a foreign policy October surprise would necessarily be dispositive in the election," he said.
He also noted a North Korean provocation may not work to its advantage by limiting policy options that may be available to a new U.S. administration.
"Of course there are number of options, and one concern I think will be that the new Biden administration could get locked into such a hard and adversarial response that it precludes the possibility of a more creative outreach early on," he said.
But even in the event of Trump's reelection, the U.S. would likely have to change its approach toward North Korea, he argued.
"I think first and foremost, the winner of the election is going to face a situation in which the United States just has so much less credibility and respect in Northeast Asia than at any other time in our modern history," said Russel.
"America's image in the region and Asian countries' confidence in the United States have really taken a beating or (been) given a series of shocks throughout the last four years," he said of the reason.
He also discredited Trump's historic meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for giving too much and not getting anything in return.
"The idea of dealing directly with the leader in an authoritarian dictatorship was not a new idea, and I struggled to try to find a way to credit the Trump administration for doing this," said Russel.
"But the fact is, number one, the way they went about it, utterly without laying the groundwork, without preparation, squandered one of the few points of real leverage that the United States has with North Korea -- the desire dating back to Kim Il-sung to be shown as a peer to the president of the United States, a legitimate international leader," he added, referring to the late North Korean founder and Kim Jong-un's grandfather.
Trump has held three meetings with Kim since June 2018, but their talks have stalled since their second bilateral summit in Hanoi in February 2019 ended without a deal.
The U.S. president strongly denies having given anything but a "meeting" to the North Korean leader.
Russel insisted the U.S. was now "far worse off" because of the Trump-Kim meetings.
"When you look at the outcome, frankly we are far worse off in the aftermath of the three encounters than we were before," he said. "North Korea's arsenal has grown many times over. Sanctions enforcement has been dealt a real setback by the legitimacy that was conferred on Kim Jong-un."
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