Led by former vice president Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have focused on President Trump’s friendly (though presently shaky) relationship with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as a prime example of a foreign policy that’s gone off the establishment tracks and left traditional US allies in the dust. With their next televised debate set for next week, Biden and most of his competitors hope to convince voters—especially those who voted Republican in 2016—that Trump’s personalized style of US power projection presents an existential danger not only to the United States but als0 to its friends around the world.
“We need allies,” Biden told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on July 5, five days after Trump revived his once-stalled negotiations with Kim in a historic meeting on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone arranged with the support of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Yet Trump “is absolutely dissing them,” the Democratic front-runner continued, and is instead “embracing thugs. He’s embracing Kim Jong-un, who is a thug.”
Even as Trump and Kim announced at the DMZ that their new negotiating teams would soon begin a new round of talks, Biden continued his line of attack, declaring on Twitter and in the CNN interview that the conversation at the border was merely a “photo op” that “gave Kim everything that he wanted: legitimacy.” Since then, of course, those talks have been delayed by continued disputes between Washington and Pyongyang, most lately about an upcoming series of US–South Korean military exercises and the North’s latest test, on Wednesday, of two short-range missiles.
Yet, given all that’s happened in Korea over the past 18 months, it’s hard to see how Biden’s tough line toward Kim—or a return to the confrontational days of 2017, when all-out war seemed a distinct possibility—could win over the swing voters the Democrats need to defeat Trump. On most issues, particularly immigration, the president’s racist stands and outrageous tweets give the party plenty of ammunition, no manner who the nominee is. But on Korea and Kim, not so much.
Since the first Trump-Kim summit, in June 2018, North Korea has refrained from testing any long-range strategic weapons, and the United States and South Korea has stopped the massive military exercises that so angered the North in years past (the ones coming up in August will be much smaller). And despite an onslaught of media stories about North Korea’s still-formidable military capabilities, the two Koreas have taken advantage of the first major diplomatic opening since the early 2000s to make enormous strides in scaling down tensions on the border, including destroying dozens of front-line guard posts and getting rid of mines.
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“If Biden tries to make North Korea a campaign issue and tries to say that Trump is appeasing the Kim regime, he is wasting his time,” said Harry Kazianis, a prominent conservative and senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by former president Richard Nixon. “The 2020 election will come down to economics, not nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula,” he told The Nation in an interview.
Still, Biden’s competitors have kept up the political offensive. At the first Democratic debate, on June 27, Senator Kamala Harris called North Korea “a real threat in terms of its nuclear arsenal” and said Trump “embraces” Kim, “a dictator, for the sake of a photo op.” Senator Elizabeth Warren continued the attack in a tweet a few days later, saying that instead of “squandering American influence on photo ops,” the United States “should be dealing with North Korea through principled diplomacy that promotes US security, defends our allies, and upholds human rights.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, in contrast, has been more nuanced. “I have no problem with [Trump’s] sitting down with Kim Jong-un,” he told ABC’s This Week. But in his view, he said, Trump has badly damaged the State Department and its ability to manage foreign affairs. “We need to move forward diplomatically, not just do photo opportunities,” he added.
It’s a close race for the Democratic nomination: In a poll released July 19 by NBC News, Biden led the pack with 25 percent, with Sanders and Warren holding steady at 16 percent and Harris just behind at 14 percent. This week, a CBS poll had it even closer, with Biden still at 25 percent, but with Warren at 20, Harris at 16 and Sanders at 15. The next three—Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, and Julián Castro—came in at 6, 4, and 2 percent, respectively. A total of 20 candidates will square off next Tuesday and Wednesday on CNN.
When it comes to foreign policy, Biden has been by far the most outspoken. He outlined his philosophy in a major speech on July 11, in which he castigated Trump as an “extreme” threat to US national security and again criticized his “cozy” relationship with Kim. (Writing in The Washington Post, neocon columnist Josh Rogin said that Biden views the 2020 election “as the last chance to save what’s left of the United States’ moral and international credibility and respect.”)
But the former vice president’s alternative policy on Korea, spelled out in his earlier interview with Cuomo on CNN, was a throwback to his days in the Obama administration, which (contrary to a ludicrous claim by Trump at the DMZ) rejected the idea of direct talks with North Korea unless Pyongyang gave up its nuclear weapons first.
Trump, Biden told CNN, “ended our relationship, as a practical matter, with South Korea and Japan as a united front and let China off the hook.” He accused Kim of doing nothing in return. “And what have we done? We’ve suspended exercises.” Asked what he’d do differently, Biden offered a taste of the militarism that Trump tried in 2017. “I make it clear that we’re going to move our defenses up, as we did before, and we’re going to make sure we have the capacity to deal with it near term. I’m going to let South Korea and Japan know we’re there for them. We are their nuclear umbrella. We’re there for them. And China understands, if you don’t want us in your throat here, if you don’t want us in your face, do something.”
Biden’s approach reflects a basic misunderstanding of the peace process in Korea. His overwhelming focus on Trump’s relationship with Kim—shared by the other candidates—obscures Korea’s agency in the peace process and the real issues at stake for Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang. “This is a rare moment in history where US and Korean interests are aligned,”said Hyun Lee, US national organizer for Women Cross DMZ and the Korea Peace Treaty Campaign, in a talk in Washington on July 16.
In a discussion at the Center for International Policy, Lee identified the “greater motivating factors” behind the US talks with North and South Korea as Trump’s need to show a win before the 2020 election; Kim’s need to lift sanctions as part of his drive to improve North Korea’s beleaguered economy; and Moon’s need to make progress in inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation before his own term is up in 2022. The organizations she works with, Lee added, are working in Washington and in Congress “to create a political space in DC to prepare for peace in Korea.”
Any discussion of the peace process, in fact, must begin in South Korea. The talks between Trump and Kim only came about because of the encouragement of President Moon, who began the current wave of diplomacy in January 2018 when he invited Kim to send emissaries to the Winter Olympics in the South. Even Shinzo Abe, Japan’s right-wing prime minister and Trump’s closest ally in Asia, has jumped on the bandwagon, offering his own direct talks with Kim (he’s also now embroiled in a bitter economic and diplomatic dispute with Moon over Japan’s World War II–era conscription of Korean laborers).
Biden’s emphasis on the nuclear umbrella—under which the United States has pledged to defend non-nuclear South Korea and Japan with its own weapons—also shows an appalling lack of understanding about the North and its motives. Those weapons, which are carried on US ships and planes in the Pacific region, are part of the arsenal that Kim Jong-un would like to see directed elsewhere, and they explain why he has insisted on the wording “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in any joint statements with Trump. It’s also a key issue for South Korean peace activists.
“There’s been a lack of discussion about what South Korea and the US should give up to help North Korea give up its nuclear weapons,” Tae-ho Lee, an activist with People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the largest and most influential NGOs in South Korea, said during a recent visit to Washington. “Security assurances to North Korea are impossible without removal of the nuclear umbrella.” He also said the combination of the US and South Korean militaries, linked in an alliance since 1954, are an “overwhelming power.” For the past 30 years, he pointed out, South Korea’s military spending alone has been higher than North Korea’s entire GDP.
Sanders, alone among the Democratic candidates, has been paying attention to and meeting with peace activists and has incorporated into his platform some of their ideas for engagement. He recently used a campaign video that featured an interview with Christine Ahn, executive director of Women Cross DMZ, to argue that Trump’s insistence on tough sanctions until an agreement is reached is threatening progress. “Peace is the best path for American security,” he says. Sanders’s stance is winning support from other progressives within Democratic ranks, such as Representative Ro Khanna of California, a Sanders backer who was the primary author of a bill that passed the full House on July 11 calling for a “binding peace agreement” to bring a formal end to the Korean War. Khanna’s bill, an amendment to a National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020, marked the first time that Congress had taken a stand on ending the 70-year-old war.
The vote was the result of intense lobbying by an array of peace groups, including Ploughshares, Win Without War, and Peace Action. In a statement, Ahn called the vote on the Khanna amendment a “game-changer.” She added: “It’s a clear sign that the American people want an end to the oldest U.S. conflict, and that ending decades of hostilities with a peace agreement is the only way to resolve the nuclear crisis.” In a sign that civil society groups may be having an impact on the Trump administration, Ahn and Hyun Lee recently met with Stephen Biegun, Trump’s chief negotiator, to discuss the prospects for peace.
In the weeks after Trump’s meeting with Kim at the DMZ, close analysts of the Korea situation, and the South Korean officials who have been in discussion with the White House, predicted that the next step in US–North Korean talks will involve North Korea’s giving up a major chunk of its nuclear program in return for a partial lifting of US and UN sanctions that are crippling the most vulnerable parts of the North’s economy. That would move both sides past the disastrous summit in Hanoi in late February, when Trump walked out after unsuccessfully pressing Kim to accept a deal that would have involved the North giving up its entire weapons program before obtaining any sanctions relief whatsoever. This was seen in Pyongyang as a demand for surrender or capitulation—something they have said they will never do.
Biegun expressed the new US flexibility a day before Trump’s meeting at the DMZ, when he informed his South Korea counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, that the US government was prepared to move the US–North Korean negotiations forward “simultaneously and in a parallel” manner. Biegun, whose role was eclipsed in Hanoi by John Bolton, Trump’s hardline national security adviser, added in a speech to the conservative Atlantic Council on June 19 that “the door is wide open” for negotiations, and said he and his North Korean partner were committed to “regain our momentum” by returning to the basic areas of agreement—including establishing new US–North Korean political relations and building a “lasting and stable peace regime”—that came out of the first summit in Singapore in June 2018. Bolton, as many observers noted, was nowhere to be seen at Trump’s meeting at the DMZ.
Despite Biegun’s signaling and Trump’s insistence that he’s in “no hurry” to get an agreement, North Korea recently complained about new, albeit small, US military exercises with South Korea, and said they make it hard to trust the United States. In statements carried on its official news agency, KCNA, the North Korean foreign ministry said the upcoming “19-2 Dong Maeng (Alliance)” drills scheduled for August are “clearly a breach of the main spirit” of the June 12 statement in Singapore, where Trump canceled large-scale military drills and—to the shock of many—called them “provocative.” Underscoring its concerns, on Monday KCNA broadcast photographs of Kim examining a new submarine that experts cited by The Wall Street Journal “believe could carry multiple missiles, including those with nuclear capabilities.” And then came this week’s launch of what South Korea called a “new kind of short-range ballistic missile,” one that is similar to two projectiles fired last May. North Korea, in a KCNA dispatch, said the test was a message to South Korean “warmongers who are running high fever in their moves to introduce the ultramodern offensive weapons into South Korea and hold military exercise in defiance of the repeated warnings from” the North. Recently, the South began deploying the first of 40 F-35A advanced fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin.
The North Korean statements and actions alarmed Kazianis, of the Center for the National Interest. “If the situation remains unaddressed” and US and North Korean diplomats can’t return to “dialogue and compromise…we could very well go back to the days of North Korean nuclear testing, ICBM launches, and President Trump calling out ‘little rocket man,’” he warned Monday in The American Conservative. Yet even after Pyongyang’s angry statements, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has assured reporters that a new round of talks will start soon. On Tuesday, he said the United States is prepared to “provide a set of security arrangements” that would guarantee to North Koreans that “if they disband their nuclear program,” the United States “won’t attack them.” The next round of negotiations, he added, “will begin in a couple of weeks.” Later, he downplayed the latest test, telling reporters that “lots of countries posture before they come to the table.”
Still, if personalities matter, Biden is unlikely to shake his disdain for Kim and the North Koreans. Last May, responding to Biden’s initial criticisms of Trump’s relationship with Kim, KCNA called him “reckless and senseless, seized by ambition for power.” In an echo of its denunciation of Trump in 2017 as a “dotard,” KCNA said that what Biden uttered “is just sophism of an imbecile bereft of elementary quality as a human being, let alone a politician.”
If the Democrats are smart, they will realize that words like that, like North Korea’s latest missile salvos, are often a prelude—even an invitation—to dialogue.