How we can build on Trump’s North Korea policy

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun delivered a speech on Thursday in Seoul on the future of U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula. While his calls for North Korea to return to the negotiating table and to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea relationship are welcome steps forward, Biegun glossed over key shortcomings of the Trump administration’s Korea policy.

In his speech, Biegun emphasized the need to end the 70-year Korean War and establish peace on the Korean Peninsula: “The war is over; the time for conflict has ended, and the time for peace has arrived.” Biegun spoke about existing commitments toward peace on the peninsula, such as the 2018 joint statement signed by President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un as well as South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation.  

Where Biegun missed the mark was in explaining why talks between the United States and North Korea during the Trump administration failed to produce results. He blamed North Korean counterparts for squandering the opportunities of the past two years rather than “seizing opportunities for engagement.”

Remarkably, Biegun does not mention Washington’s role in the talks’ demise. A modest arms control agreement to verify and gradually reduce North Korea’s nuclear weapons program would have been far more effective than the maximalist stance that the Trump administration took in 2019 in Hanoi. By asking for much more than what North Koreans were willing to give, the United States squandered the opportunity to reach a deal.

As South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha observed at this week’s Aspen Strategy Group’s webinar, flexibility is key for success: “[South Koreans] don’t expect North Korea to do everything all at once. But as long as we have the full picture of where they are in terms of their nuclear development, we can work and synchronize what they want and what we seek in terms of the concrete steps toward denuclearization.”

The unfortunate reality is that both Washington and Pyongyang held on to the unrealistic belief that personal diplomacy could overcome decades of mistrust and hawkish elements within each government. Kim Jong Un’s lack of faith in the inter-Korean peace process was also self-defeating. Pyongyang did itself no favor by blowing up the liaison office in Kaesongkilling and burning a South Korean fisheries official, and denigrating South Korea’s overtures.

On the U.S.’s side, the Trump administration could have done much more to persuade skeptics — particularly in the U.S. Congress — that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a long-term goal, rather than a prerequisite for talking. Instead, the Trump administration kept Congress at bay, which made it easy for the legislative branch to attack the president’s diplomatic efforts.

On the subject of the U.S.-ROK alliance, Biegun wisely called for more honest and open discussions toward a “future-oriented strategic rationale” for the relationship. Indeed, a reexamination of the security, diplomatic, and economic dimensions of the U.S.-ROK relations is needed given how much has changed in East Asia and the United States in recent years. Closer cooperation in non-traditional areas such as pandemics and climate change would be especially useful at this juncture as it plays into Seoul’s strengths at a time of extraordinary challenges in the United States.

At the same time, Biegun’s comments about the contours of a forward-looking U.S.-ROK alliance should be read with a grain of salt. Biegun seems to suggest a reorientation of the bilateral relationship toward one that is designed to curb China’s influence in the region. Such a move would be a mistake. South Korea loathes to join any initiatives that can be construed as undermining its largest trading partner, preferring instead frameworks that emphasize common interests rather than ideological differences.

Biegun’s call for cooperation in the “rules-based international order and in advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region comprised of strong, sovereign states thriving and free of coercion” is nearly word-for-word the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which under President Trump has become synonymous with a China containment strategy. Rather than insisting on a predetermined organizing principle, Washington would do well to first consult with Seoul on how best to update bilateral relations to meet 21st century challenges. 

A diplomacy-centered approach toward achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula was never going to be easy, and Biegun deserves much credit for his tireless efforts during his tenure at the State Department. A North Korea strategy centered on diplomacy and military restraint is needed to build upon the modest successes of the Trump administration. The question is whether decision-makers on both sides of the Pacific share Biegun’s sense of urgency.

This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.