Donald Trump achieved two important things by befriending Kim Jong-un. First, he took Kim out of the international shadows and made him an individual figure in the eyes of the global media. It showed that Kim, who is often vilified, has a sister, wife, children, worries and emotions. Second, more importantly, Trump paved the way for Kim to meet with Xi Jinping. China-DPRK relations were really bad in 201617 after Kim executed his pro-Chinese uncle, launched long-range missile tests, and tested what could have been a hydrogen bomb near the Chinese border. With China being North Korea’s only major trading partner, international sanctions can only sway North Korea in the desired direction when China is on board. Sanctions likely contributed to Kims’ strategic shift in 2018, although he may have planned it from the start. It first opened up to South Korea, then with South Korean help to the United States. Trump’s positive response led to two summits and a meeting in the DMZ, as well as a flow of personal lettersbut not to any agreement. Still, Kim has a lot to thank Trump for. He gained in stature.
What should Joe Biden do? He should not erase work that Trump did. Kim won’t gladly return to sanctioned shadows. If Biden restores Obamas’ passivity, then Kim will resort to further provocations, as he has already hinted at by including new missiles in the military parade held in Pyongyang on the anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Then the relationship will return to what it was in 2017, except this time around Kim will have less reason to fear a convergence between Beijing and Washington. He could even consult Xi in the same way his grandfather consulted Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung before launching his invasion of South Korea in June 1950. Biden could find himself in a worse crisis with North Korea than any of its predecessors.
Therefore, Biden should inform Pyongyang as soon as possible that if Kim maintains its moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and visibly accelerates its nuclear program, the United States will be open to further diplomatic talks, and Biden will look forward to meeting Kim, but only after the delegations of the two sides have drawn up a roadmap for gradual progress with clear milestones towards gradual sanctions relief and also a security guarantee, provided that North Korea undertakes a gradual, verifiable and full dismantling of its nuclear facilities .
This way Biden can keep the United States in the Northeast Asian game, and maintain its alliance with South Korea. The alternative is to face a protracted crisis that could eventually be resolved on Northeast Asian terms, between China, North Korea and South Korea, perhaps with some involvement from the Russia, but regardless of American or Japanese interests.
Stein Tnnesson works for the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway.
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