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Analysts: Biden administration should engage with North Korea soon

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden should initiate diplomatic negotiations with North Korea soon, a group of analysts said during a webinar by the Stimson Center and the Sejong Institute on Wednesday. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden should initiate diplomatic negotiations with North Korea soon, a group of analysts said during a webinar by the Stimson Center and the Sejong Institute on Wednesday. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Despite a host of pressing domestic issues, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden should take the initiative in restarting diplomacy with North Korea as soon as possible, analysts said during a webinar on Wednesday.

"I would contend that there's a very strong case to be made for starting a process with the North Koreans earlier rather than later," said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think it's better to take the initiative before the North Koreans make a provocative move."

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The webinar was co-hosted by Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Stimson Center and the Seoul-based Sejong Institute.

DiMaggio pointed to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which was placed on the defensive when North Korea made a series of aggressive gestures including a nuclear test in May 2009, just months after Obama was inaugurated.

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"The more we kick this can down the road, the more advanced their arsenal becomes and the more limited our options become," DiMaggio said. "It's better to be proactive than reactive."

Hwang Ji-hwan, a professor at the University of Seoul, said the Biden administration should reject the Obama-era stance toward North Korea, a low-engagement approach, which was characterized as "strategic patience," noting Pyongyang's increased nuclear and missile capabilities.

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"North Korea is no longer a remote threat," said Hwang. "So, North Korea now should be a top national security priority. Strategic patience will not work for Biden."

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in has characterized the new Biden administration as presenting an opportunity to restart a faltering peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

Nuclear negotiations have stalled out since a 2019 summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to reach an agreement. A key sticking point was the demand by Washington for full denuclearization before offering any relief from the punishing international sanctions that have remained in place since 2017.

The analysts agreed that a reciprocal step-by-step process that would allow for denuclearization and a peace process to proceed in phases is a more realistic strategy.

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"Biden's North Korea policy may begin with a small step in which the United States and North Korea can narrow down their differences and exchange detailed agendas," Hwang said. "This is what the Moon Jae-in government expects the Biden administration to do for North Korea policy."

Kim Jung-sup, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said sanctions are an ineffective strategy for compelling Pyongyang to denuclearize. He added that easing sanctions could get the peace process moving and allow inter-Korean economic cooperation projects to begin, despite a built-up reservoir of mistrust on all sides.

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"The United States and South Korea should be willing to take some risks and make a detailed and elaborate negotiation plan that can test North Korea's ultimate intentions," Kim said. "Sanctions can make the North Korean regime suffer, but they cannot make the North Korean regime give up its nuclear weapons."

The Biden administration has not announced any concrete plans for its approach to North Korea. In Biden's first phone call with Moon earlier this month, both leaders agreed that "it is necessary to come up with a comprehensive strategy toward North Korea as soon as possible," according to a South Korean presidential spokesman.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month that Washington would undergo a complete policy review and would look at "what can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table."

Jenny Towns, a fellow at the Stimson Center, cautioned that Biden may not have the political capital to expend on a robust North Korea approach with so many other pressing issues facing his administration, from the COVID-19 pandemic to economic recovery to a deeply divided U.S. populace.

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"In terms of where the Biden administration is willing to put reputational capital and be willing to shoulder the criticism that comes with bold decisions and big moves -- I don't think the appetite is there to do it on North Korea," Towns said.

Towns added that working-level talks with North Korea could remain difficult, as Kim may not be willing to delegate any real decision-making authority. She suggested returning to one of the symbols of the Trump-Kim relationship: personal letters between the two leaders.

"There's a continued role for summits, but we need to rethink how we prepare for them and part of that is using some of the tools that were developed over the Trump administration," she said. "There are some things that you can negotiate at the working level, but if there are some issues that need that contact with Kim Jong Un directly in order to make progress, there's a way to present them in private in these letters."

DiMaggio added that a future Biden-Kim summit could play a valuable role in negotiations with North Korea, but that the all-or-nothing approach taken toward denuclearization by the Trump team made diplomatic success impossible.

"The objectives were so unrealistic," said DiMaggio. "Diplomacy never stood a chance in that context."

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The Biden administration is "not taking the leader-to-leader summit off the table," she added. "But it's going to be one of an array of ways they want to engage the North Koreans."

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