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Biden's security team raises hopes for rapid North Korea policy review

Then-President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a virtual meeting with members of his national security and foreign policy agency review teams in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 28, 2020. / AP-Yonhap
Then-President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a virtual meeting with members of his national security and foreign policy agency review teams in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 28, 2020. / AP-Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

With the new U.S. administration busy finalizing the roster of its national security team, questions are arising in South Korea over when President Joe Biden will unveil his policy toward North Korea.

As the team features many experts on Pyongyang, some believe that Washington could complete a review of its North Korea policy within a couple of months. However, others claim that issues involving the Kim Jong-un regime still rank below other diplomatic agenda items involving Iran, China and Russia, so it is still expected to take some time before the Biden team comes up with a new strategy. The consensus here on the estimated length of time for the policy review is up to six months

So far, President Biden has nominated Antony Blinken as state secretary and Wendy Sherman as his deputy, while naming Sung Kim as acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, all of whom have experience in dealing with the North Korean regime under previous administrations.

Describing the North's nuclear ballistic missiles and other proliferation-related activities as a serious threat, the White House said, Friday (local time), it would adopt a new strategy after a thorough policy review of the state of play in the country in close consultation with South Korea, Japan and other allies. William Burns and Kurt Campbell, career diplomats serving for former President Barack Obama, have also been selected to lead the Central Intelligence Agency and Asia policy, respectively.

"As the Biden national security team is filled with experienced hands in terms of North Korea-related issues, it will not take a lot of time before a policy review is done," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.

"Although it took a lot of time under the Donald Trump administration due to the lack of a pool of experts, it is not likely this time and the big picture of its North Korea policy may emerge ahead of the annual State of the Union address in February."

On the other hand, Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said the issue is still not high on Biden's diplomatic agenda.

"During the Blinken confirmation hearing, he referred to issues regarding the North after those involving Iran and the Middle East, China, and Russia and Ukraine," he said.

"In addition, consultations with allies mean that the U.S. government will complete reviewing the policy a month or two after listening to Korea and Japan."

Cheong Seong-chang, a fellow at the Wilson Center's Asia Program, said it is up to the South Korean government whether the Biden administration will come up with a new strategy sooner than expected.

"Given that Blinken welcomed conversation with South Korea on North Korea issues before rethinking the U.S. policy and approach toward the North, Seoul needs to be fully prepared to do so with sophisticated logic and a strategy grand enough to convince veteran U.S. diplomats to take our side seriously," Cheong said.

However, Michael Green, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), advised the Moon Jae-in administration to refrain from urging Biden to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, citing a past case that he believes hurt the alliance between the two countries.

"I hope the Blue House does not go in and prioritize a summit with North Korea or big dramatic policy with North Korea, because I don't think the Biden administration is prepared to do that," he said during a virtual forum, Friday. The Blue House refers to the South Korean presidential office, or Cheong Wa Dae.

The American observer said former President Kim Dae-jung's push for ex-U.S. President George W. Bush to prioritize a summit with the North during their first meeting ended up setting back the alliance and their North Korea policy by six months to a year, because Kim left a "bad initial impression."

But former President Lee Myung-bak took a different approach. Lee captured Obama's imagination by presenting a vision of how South Korea could cooperate with the U.S. on many issues that he cared about, according to Green.


Then-President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a virtual meeting with members of his national security and foreign policy agency review teams in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 28, 2020. / AP-Yonhap
Then-President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a virtual meeting with members of his national security and foreign policy agency review teams in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 28, 2020. / AP-Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

With the new U.S. administration busy finalizing the roster of its national security team, questions are arising in South Korea over when President Joe Biden will unveil his policy toward North Korea.

As the team features many experts on Pyongyang, some believe that Washington could complete a review of its North Korea policy within a couple of months. However, others claim that issues involving the Kim Jong-un regime still rank below other diplomatic agenda items involving Iran, China and Russia, so it is still expected to take some time before the Biden team comes up with a new strategy. The consensus here on the estimated length of time for the policy review is up to six months

So far, President Biden has nominated Antony Blinken as state secretary and Wendy Sherman as his deputy, while naming Sung Kim as acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, all of whom have experience in dealing with the North Korean regime under previous administrations.

Describing the North's nuclear ballistic missiles and other proliferation-related activities as a serious threat, the White House said, Friday (local time), it would adopt a new strategy after a thorough policy review of the state of play in the country in close consultation with South Korea, Japan and other allies. William Burns and Kurt Campbell, career diplomats serving for former President Barack Obama, have also been selected to lead the Central Intelligence Agency and Asia policy, respectively.

"As the Biden national security team is filled with experienced hands in terms of North Korea-related issues, it will not take a lot of time before a policy review is done," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.

"Although it took a lot of time under the Donald Trump administration due to the lack of a pool of experts, it is not likely this time and the big picture of its North Korea policy may emerge ahead of the annual State of the Union address in February."

On the other hand, Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said the issue is still not high on Biden's diplomatic agenda.

"During the Blinken confirmation hearing, he referred to issues regarding the North after those involving Iran and the Middle East, China, and Russia and Ukraine," he said.

"In addition, consultations with allies mean that the U.S. government will complete reviewing the policy a month or two after listening to Korea and Japan."

Cheong Seong-chang, a fellow at the Wilson Center's Asia Program, said it is up to the South Korean government whether the Biden administration will come up with a new strategy sooner than expected.

"Given that Blinken welcomed conversation with South Korea on North Korea issues before rethinking the U.S. policy and approach toward the North, Seoul needs to be fully prepared to do so with sophisticated logic and a strategy grand enough to convince veteran U.S. diplomats to take our side seriously," Cheong said.

However, Michael Green, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), advised the Moon Jae-in administration to refrain from urging Biden to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, citing a past case that he believes hurt the alliance between the two countries.

"I hope the Blue House does not go in and prioritize a summit with North Korea or big dramatic policy with North Korea, because I don't think the Biden administration is prepared to do that," he said during a virtual forum, Friday. The Blue House refers to the South Korean presidential office, or Cheong Wa Dae.

The American observer said former President Kim Dae-jung's push for ex-U.S. President George W. Bush to prioritize a summit with the North during their first meeting ended up setting back the alliance and their North Korea policy by six months to a year, because Kim left a "bad initial impression."

But former President Lee Myung-bak took a different approach. Lee captured Obama's imagination by presenting a vision of how South Korea could cooperate with the U.S. on many issues that he cared about, according to Green.


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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