Joe Biden is just one day away from walking into the White House as the president of the United States, but don’t expect Trump’s overseas authoritarian pals — including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — to be celebrating. Dennis P. Halpin specially for the NK News.
Kim used Trump to break out onto the world stage of international diplomacy. Singapore, Hanoi and Panmunjom became the stages for their “The Apprentice”-like television extravaganzas – far less summitry and much more show.
The incoming White House occupant, on the other hand, is a thoughtful establishment figure who places value on experience, briefing papers and measured responses. Don’t expect Biden to grant Kim the same Trumpian audiences without significant preconditions first.
Ultimately, Kim bet on the wrong horse: He’ll now have to say goodbye to his buddy Trump and instead deal with the man North Korean media once derided as a “rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death with a stick.”
TOUGHER ON HUMAN RIGHTS
North Korean human rights will be one of the many differences between Biden and Trump.
Trump used to express more concern for North Korean human rights. Notably, during his 2018 State of the Union address, he invited North Korean defector and now South Korean national assembly member Ji Seong-ho. At the time, Trump referred to Ji’s harrowing escape to the South as “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
Also in attendance were the parents of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea and returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state before passing away in 2017. Trump pledged to “honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve” at the State of the Union, asserting that “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
But, as his bromance with Kim blossomed around the time of the Singapore summit less than six months later, Trump dropped the human rights issue like a hot potato. The prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize for diplomacy with North Korea, suggested to him by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other sycophants, seemed rather appealing. And if Obama could win one, why not him? (Note: Trump recently made a false statement to an audience, claiming that he — like Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama — had won a Nobel Peace Prize.)
There’s no indication that Trump raised North Korea’s abysmal human rights record with Kim during their face-to-face meetings in 2018 and 2019. Immediately following the Hanoi summit in Feb. 2019, Trump said that Kim “feels badly” about Otto’s death but that “he tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
Taking the word of a person responsible for the deaths of his own uncle and half-brother is ludicrous, and Otto’s parents were also quick to disagree with the president.
Biden, on the other hand, won’t let North Korea off the hook for human rights abuses so easily.
In Oct. 2019, then-presidential candidate Biden called Trump’s “excuses” for Kim’s abuses “disgraceful.” He also pointed to his role in passing the North Korea Human Rights Act 15 years prior, which calls for the appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights – something Trump never did.
Former special envoy for North Korean human rights, Ambassador Robert R. King, made a prediction in a recent opinion piece for NK News: “I certainly don’t speak for President-elect Biden, but my guess is that he will appoint a special envoy.” King added that he believes the Biden administration will bring “a renewed commitment to human rights in North Korea.”
STRONGER ON ALLIANCES
Another key difference between Biden and Trump will be their stance on U.S. allies.
With the possible exception of Germany, no ally was more subject to Trump’s ridicule than South Korea. Trump has lambasted South Korea on a number of issues, including cost-sharing for U.S. troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula – demanding a 400% increase in Seoul’s contribution and trade. He threatened to leave Seoul high and dry during any contingency involving North Korea.
Trump even reportedly called South Koreans “terrible people” during a speech earlier this year. These remarks were allegedly made at a dinner for Republican Governors in Feb. 2020, before COVID really struck the United States. It was when U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris and a team from Washington were in the midst of negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement (the military cost-sharing deal).
Kim Jong Un, who was hoping to wean Trump away from the United States’ long-standing commitment to South Korea by sowing suspicion between the allies, will face a more unified front under Biden. Going forward, Japan and other regional players will be consulted more thoroughly regarding U.S. policy and actions.
Plus, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is a known alliance builder both on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration. His pick clearly indicates a new approach that will sharply contrast with Trump’s disparaging of “dead beat” allies.
Biden will also likely resume the large-scale joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, abruptly suspended following the 2018 U.S.-DPRK Singapore summit. Trump described these exercises as “war games,” “very provocative” and “very expensive.”
SUSPICION AND CLEANUP
In this era of deeply polarized American politics, some Biden administration policymakers will tend to view anything associated with Trump with the same deep suspicion that the Trump administration viewed anything linked to former President Obama. This will naturally include Trump’s very personal style of diplomacy with Kim Jong Un.
Biden will also have to deal with other pressing issues such as the economy, COVID-19 and restoring NATO. In other words, North Korea could end up being put on the backburner.
This would be usual for new administrations conducting a policy review. Until the Biden White House gets its ducks in line, the Obama-era “strategic patience” policy, repackaged as “principled diplomacy,” may become the accepted fallback position in the meantime.
This is all bad news for Kim. Facing crushing sanctions, COVID-19 and summer floods, the North Korean leader should have made greater efforts at his summits with the mercurial Trump to get sanctions relief while there was still time. In that way, he could have achieved the economic prosperity he has promised his people.
Edited by James Fretwell