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Trump will leave office foiled by the North Korea nuclear problem. Will Biden fare better?

By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SEOUL, Korea — President Donald Trump's cool-headed nuclear envoy told the North Koreans it was "a window of opportunity."

Here was a U.S. president willing to venture far outside traditional diplomacy, particularly with regard to a pariah nation like North Korea. As quick as he was to fire off insults on Twitter and threaten "fire and fury," Trump stunned many by agreeing to meet with leader Kim Jong Un — even stepping onto North Korean soil when he crossed the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

"You know how to reach us," said Stephen Biegun, now the deputy secretary of state, in late 2019. But at the end of all the photo ops and summitry, North Korea wasn't buying the deal Trump was selling.

As Trump's whipsaw diplomacy with North Korea draws to a close, the country is no nearer to relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. It has instead blown up a liaison office with South Korea, shot and killed a South Korean man in its waters and last month showcased a new, larger intercontinental ballistic missile in a triumphant military parade.

Enter President-elect Joe Biden, who in debates likened Trump's tete-a-tetes with Kim to meeting with Adolph Hitler on the eve of World War II. The incoming U.S. president has promised South Koreans he will return to "principled diplomacy" in dealing with North Korea and the ever-emboldened Kim.

As capricious and unorthodox as Trump's approach was, for some on the Korean peninsula, it raised hopes of a breakthrough in the long impasse in talks to denuclearize North Korea. Trump's engagement with Pyongyang as his foreign-policy centerpiece appeared to jibe with Kim's eagerness to strengthen his country's economy and a liberal South Korean president's desire to improve ties with the North.


Even their personalities — two outsize men with mercurial natures — made Trump and Kim well-suited and compelling characters in an odd and fleeting bromance.

"There are South Koreans who would have wanted to see Trump's unconventional style persist," said Duyeon Kim, a fellow at Center for a New American Security, a U.S. think tank. "But it's not black and white; Trump is a mixed bag."

Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke on the phone earlier this month, pledging to collaborate closely on the North Korea nuclear issue, according to South Korea's presidential office. In the days following the U.S. presidential election, all attention in South Korea has been focused on what Biden's North Korea policy would look like and whether it would be a continuation of the "strategic patience" approach under President Barack Obama.

"To Koreans, 'strategic patience' means putting North Korea on the back burner," Duyeon Kim said. "President Trump, for better or worse, talked about and thought about North Korea a lot. For the first time in U.S. history, North Korea was on the president's radar, and that's been difficult in previous administrations."


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