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Rejecting ‘Love Letters’ to North Korea, Biden Offers Carrots and Sticks Instead


Mr. Biden’s team is focused on returning to a North Korea strategy aimed at deterrence, according to a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity on Saturday to explain the American president’s thinking. Much like President Barack Obama, for whom he served as vice president, Mr. Biden is open to meeting with Mr. Kim at some point in the future, the official said, but wants to return to the more traditional protocol in which lower-level diplomats engage with the North before he becomes involved.

The administration does not seem to anticipate any imminent breakthrough. While the administration has been quick to turn to sanctions against North Korea, foreign policy analysts have pointed out that diplomacy has largely been missing from Mr. Biden’s approach to Mr. Kim. The administration’s special envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, is juggling the assignment with his ambassadorship to Indonesia. And Mr. Biden waited a year before nominating Philip Goldberg, a former sanctions enforcer, to be ambassador of South Korea.

“It looks to me that the U.S. has defaulted to a posture remarkably similar to the Obama ‘strategic patience’ policy,” said Alexander R. Vershbow, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to South Korea under President George W. Bush. “And they’re getting the same result: no negotiations, more tests, and not even lip service by Pyongyang to the goal of denuclearization.” That said, he added, “even if there were negotiations, it’s unlikely they would make any progress.”

Victor D. Cha, a Georgetown University professor and former Asia adviser to Mr. Bush, said Mr. Biden’s strategy resembles the pre-Trump American formula of insisting on complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program before granting any relief from economic sanctions, a formula known in diplomatic parlance by its initials CVID.

“It’s a return to CVID without talk about unilateral sanctions lifting, quitting exercises, or unilateral peace declarations,” Mr. Cha said. “In that sense, it is normalizing and realigning alliance policy on North Korea. What good is that, you ask? With North Korean obstinance, Chinese apathy, and Russian uncooperativeness, North Korea policy becomes about keeping the allies together and not weakening the alliance. I think that’s what happened today and it’s important.”

But Mr. Biden wants to expand the relationship with South Korea beyond just a security partnership. The day before their bilateral meeting, the president and Mr. Yoon met at a Samsung semiconductor factory to commit to addressing global supply-chain issues that have contributed to soaring inflation in the United States.

Before their joint news conference on Saturday, the two delegations met for several hours — Mr. Yoon’s staff members were overheard discussing with Biden aides, including Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, the history of Korean-American relations and of previous meetings with other allies in the region, among them the Japanese delegation that Mr. Biden will meet with on Monday.

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