On North Korea, Biden should borrow from Trump’s Singapore declaration

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Kim Jong Un and his family have welcomed the Biden administration with North Korea’s standard playbook of military provocations and verbal threats. In January, Kim told his ruling Korean Workers’ Party that he plans to grow his nuclear weapons arsenal and perfect their delivery to targets as far as the western United States. Pyongyang then launched, on March 25, short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, shaking up what had been a relative calm in Northeast Asia in recent years. 

President Biden and his advisers are reviewing U.S. strategy toward Pyongyang and pointing toward a “new approach.” But his administration shouldn’t start from scratch. North Korea poses a rare instance in which Biden’s national security team can constructively pick up from a policy initiated by former President Trump, while recognizing its flaws. 

In 2018, Trump and Kim signed a declaration in Singapore that formally committed North Korea to dismantling its nuclear arsenal. The pact established a path for normalizing relations between Washington and Pyongyang and forging a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. The U.S. discussed plans to lift sanctions on North Korea in a bid to revitalize its moribund economy. 

“President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the June 12, 2018, statement read.

Critics of the Singapore declaration rightfully say the pact was woefully short on operational details. Indeed, two follow-on meetings between Trump and Kim in 2019 — one in Hanoi and the other in Panmunjom — failed to secure concrete plans to roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. And diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang largely froze afterward, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic forced Kim to shut his country’s borders in early 2020. 

But the U.S. has benefited strategically from the Singapore agreement in ways not fully appreciated by many in Washington. North Korea has stuck to a moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests since the summitry process began in 2018. And Kim made good on other confidence-building measures initiated under Trump: North Korea released three Americans imprisoned in the Marxist country, and sent back the remains of 50 U.S. servicemen who died during the Korean War.

North Korean officials also have publicly laid out what they said were the serious freezes and rollbacks of their nuclear program offered up in their negotiations with Trump and his diplomats. These included a limitation of the production of nuclear materials and a shuttering of the Yongbyon nuclear complex that produces both weapons-usable uranium and plutonium in the hills 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang. They also cited limitations on the North’s ballistic missile program, which increasingly poses a threat to the mainland U.S. “What is clear is that the U.S. has thrown away a golden opportunity this time,” said Madam Choi Sun Hee, one of North Korea’s chief negotiators, after the Hanoi summit’s breakdown in 2019.

Diplomats and analysts remain divided over the importance of the Singapore declaration and the utility of diplomacy with Pyongyang. South Korea officials claim it was the Trump team’s maximalist approach — seeking complete denuclearization in North Korea all at once — that caused the process to derail. Hawkish former Trump advisers such as John Bolton, meanwhile, believe the summits were simply a feint by Kim aimed at reducing financial pressure on North Korea while still maintaining his nuclear arsenal. Trump himself ended up criticizing Bolton for demanding that Kim adopt the all-or-nothing “Libyan model” of nuclear disarmament, which ultimately didn’t save the late Arab dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, from a murderous mob. 

“We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model,” Trump said after firing his one-time national security adviser. “He made a mistake.”

President Biden, understandably focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting domestic initiatives, might look at Trump’s messy legacy with North Korea and take a go-slowly approach. Biden also could follow the lead of his former boss, Barack Obama, and adopt the position of “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang. This saw the U.S. largely shelve direct talks with Kim during Obama’s second term in the belief that financial pressure ultimately would force North Korea back to the negotiating table with real concessions. 

But the threat from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has grown so great over the past decade that the new U.S. administration doesn’t have the luxury to sit on the sidelines again. Kim is estimated to have as many as 60 atomic bombs, and the North’s last nuclear detonation in 2017 registered a yield much higher than previous tests. North Korean leaders have openly announced their intention to build a deliverable thermonuclear device.  

The Biden administration should quickly tell Pyongyang that the U.S. is prepared to resume direct negotiations based on the structure and objectives of the Singapore declaration. This approach would allow the U.S. to test whether a phased reduction of Kim’s nuclear program is really a possibility. The North Korean leader in the past has hailed his signature on the Singapore pact as a historic achievement for his government. 

If Pyongyang declines, the Biden administration will be in a much stronger position to increase financial and military pressure on the North. And this approach would allow the new American leader to demonstrate to key allies in Asia — namely, South Korea and Japan — that Washington is fully engaged on the North Korean threat. Some leaders in the region are voicing growing concern that the U.S. no longer is capable or committed to rolling back Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

Speaking to Washington’s Hudson Institute last month, retired South Korean General Chun In Bum said Seoul is now questioning whether Pyongyang really can be deterred in the long run. “If the South Koreans did become a nuclear weapons state, I would feel much better,” he said. “We are at an impasse. We’ve done everything before. And it hasn’t worked.”

Jay Solomon is an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior director at APCO Worldwide. He is the author of “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East.”​ Follow him on Twitter @jaysolomon.

Tags Barack Obama denuclearization talks Donald Trump Joe Biden John Bolton Kim Jong Un Peace Treaty on Korean Peninsula Singapore summit US-North Korea relations

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