Peace initiative put to test
New strategy needed to denuclearize North Korea
The upcoming U.S. leadership change is likely to put President Moon Jae-in's Korean Peninsula peace process to the test. It is inevitable for President-elect Joe Biden to adopt a North Korea policy much different from that of Donald Trump. Biden has so far taken a tougher line on the North than Trump has, dimming prospects for a quick breakthrough in denuclearization talks with the Kim Jong-un regime.
That is why Moon said Monday that his government would ensure that there was no "vacuum" in improving the South Korea-U.S. alliance and working toward a peace process on the peninsula. "We will do our utmost to ensure that the precious achievements made under the Donald Trump administration will be transferred to and advanced in the next administration," he said.
Moon was apparently trying to send a message to Biden that after the new U.S. president takes office in January, he will continue to push his peace initiative, which opened the way for two Trump-Kim summits on the denuclearization talks. The Korean president's initiative made it possible to restart dialogue not only between Seoul and Pyongyang, but also between Washington and Pyongyang. But his efforts for peace have hit a snag since the second U.S.-North Korea summit ended with no deal in Hanoi in February 2019.
What is worrisome is that Biden will scrap Trump's top-down approach toward resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. Biden is expected to take a step-by-step bottom-up approach. Unlike his predecessor, before having a summit with Kim, Biden will likely focus on working-level negotiations to narrow differences with the North over how it must denuclearize. This may make it take longer to see any progress in the stalled negotiations between the two countries.
Biden's hardline stance on North Korea was revealed in his election debate with President Trump last month. He attacked Trump for legitimizing the North's continued development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. He even called the North Korean leader a "thug." Yet he said he would meet Kim on condition that Pyongyang scrapped its nuclear weapons program.
Now no one can rule out the possibility of Biden inheriting the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," which made the U.S. wait for the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions under international sanctions and pressure without negotiations. If he adopts such a policy, it is difficult to expect any progress in the nuclear showdown with the North.
Against this background, President Moon has pledged to have close consultations with the incoming U.S. administration, saying he will communicate with Biden and his key aides through various channels. First, Moon should consolidate Seoul-Washington ties, because Biden has committed to restoring traditional U.S. diplomacy to strengthen alliances with other countries.
Upon rebuilding the bilateral alliance and restoring confidence in each country, the two leaders can cooperate closely to work out a new strategy to achieve the North's denuclearization. It is also important to understand why Obama's "strategic patience" policy and Trump's top-down approach failed. Moon and Biden should learn from the failure in order to move forward with the peace process on the peninsula.
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