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South Korea longs for Trump to focus as efforts to engage in Pyongyang stall

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Joe Biden’s lack of ambition to find a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea has left some South Koreans absent from Donald Trump’s blazing summit.

The Biden administration has taken a “calibrated and practical approach” to North Korea, saying it is willing to engage diplomatically without preconditions once Pyongyang is ready to do so.

But observers in Seoul and Washington say a reluctance to make proposals and a lack of commitment at the highest level indicate a desire to manage rather than solve the North Korean problem, even as Kim Jong Un strengthens its missile and nuclear programs.

“The administration wouldn’t say it like that, but their policy on North Korea is really benign neglect,” said Sue Mi Terry, director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center in Washington and former the CIA. analyst.

“They seem to have given up on any hope of a breakthrough, and for quite understandable reasons,” adding that the administration was focusing on China.

When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the Americas in 2017, Trump said it would rain “fire and fury” on the East Asian nation.

After a period of heightened tension and belligerent rhetoric that policymakers in Seoul and Washington said could lead to war, the two leaders met in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019. The summits have shaken the world. traditional US approach to the Korean Peninsula.

Donald Trump tells North Korea he will rain “fire and fury” after Pyongyang tests intercontinental ballistic missile © AP

Their meetings were accompanied by a series of inter-Korean summits in 2018 that produced a historic handshake between Kim and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, at the dividing line between the two Koreas.

“There was a really intense sense of possibility, even a euphoria in Seoul at the time,” said Ankit Panda, a North Korean arms expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Everyone thought Kim Jong Un was coming to town. We had the feeling that South Korea was at the forefront of history.

But the process collapsed in Hanoi amid disagreements over sanctions relief and dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. Kim has not engaged in talks since, his isolation exacerbated by the lockdown he imposed on his country in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

For officials in the Biden administration, the failure of Trump’s North Korean strategy justifies their low-key approach.

“We have no hostile intention towards [North Korea] and remains open to meeting with them without preconditions, ”a State Department spokesperson said.

“We hope that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will respond positively to our approach. However, to date, we have not received any substantial response from the DPRK to our offers to meet. “

A senior Western government official said, “Much of the criticism directed at Americans comes from people who believe that the key to solving the North Korean problem is to find the magic formula that will suddenly satisfy North Koreans.

“It’s not for us to chase after the North Koreans, especially when they haven’t given any sign that they want to come to the table – we’re not trying to make Kim Jong Un happy. “

But the US insistence that the ball is in Kim’s court has infuriated members of the Moon administration. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade the United States to grant sanctions relief and officially declare the Korean War over in an effort to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

“The US position is one of stable management and the Korean government is losing patience,” said Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute think tank and former special adviser to President Moon. “We urged the US government to send positive signals; it is very natural that North Korea does not respond to empty propositions.

A member of the South Korean president’s inner circle told the Financial Times: “The Biden administration claims to care about our proposals, but they have yet to welcome them. ”

In September, the chairman of the ruling Democratic Party in South Korea said that “even though the Trump administration had many problems, the Biden administration must continue the policies of the previous administration, which sought to resolve the problems with North Korea through dialogue ”.

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Data from Pew Global Indicators shows that South Korean support for Trump’s North Korean policy reached 78% in 2019.

“Despite doubts about Trump himself, there was strong bipartisan support for his policy of engagement with North Korea,” said Steven Denney of the University of Vienna who analyzed the data.

“There is some nostalgia in South Korea for Trump’s maximalist approach: Conservatives miss his ‘maximum pressure’ approach of 2017, while progressives miss the 2018-19 summit,” said Terry du Wilson. Center.

“Few people have affection for President Trump personally, and they were upset with his transactional approach to the alliance with South Korea. But there is a feeling that at least he tried.

Analysts said the hope that Trump would make a breakthrough may have been illusory, but the Biden administration couldn’t just wish the problem resolved.

Victor Cha, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “They can’t keep saying ‘we are not Trump, we are not Obama, we will meet anytime, anywhere’ . This is not a policy, this is a bumper sticker.

Additional reports by Kang Buseong

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