SEOUL — Love letters are out. Military exercises are back. In his first visit to South Korea since taking office, President Biden restored America’s strategy toward the Korean Peninsula to the traditional approach that prevailed before his predecessor upended generations of relations by romancing North Korea’s dictator.
That means more deterrence, more collaboration with allies and more skepticism of Pyongyang, but it may not mean more progress resolving one of the world’s most intractable standoffs. While Mr. Biden concluded that former President Donald J. Trump’s “we fell in love” courtship of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was an embarrassing spectacle, he holds little illusion that a return to the old ways will result in a breakthrough any time soon either.
Instead, Mr. Biden is essentially hunkering down for a long impasse, taking measures to keep North Korea contained and to forestall a dangerous escalation — or at least be better prepared to respond in case there is one — while leaving the door open to diplomacy should the right moment ever arrive. His trip here to Seoul, to be followed by a visit to Tokyo starting on Sunday, was designed to bolster allies rattled by Mr. Trump’s unpredictable maneuvering — as well as China’s growing power — and reassure them that the United States would never abandon them in the face of a nuclear threat.
“The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States has never been stronger, more vibrant or, I might add, more vital,” said Mr. Biden, using South Korea’s formal name, at a news conference in Seoul with President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was inaugurated only 11 days ago.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Yoon announced that they would explore ways to expand the joint military exercises that have historically irritated North Korea so much that Mr. Trump sought to curtail them during his presidency in a concession to Mr. Kim.
Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden hailed the continuing American troop presence in South Korea. “It’s emblematic of our strength and our continuing strength and the durability of our alliance and our readiness to take on all threats,” he said.
Similarly, Mr. Biden took a more cautious attitude toward the prospect of direct dealings with the nuclear-armed North. He said the United States had already offered vaccines to North Korea to help it cope with what has been reported to be a devastating coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve gotten no response,” he said.
“With regard to whether I would meet with the leader of North Korea,” he added, “that would depend on whether he was sincere and whether it was serious.”
The president’s approach contrasted sharply with that of Mr. Trump, who initially threatened the North with “fire and fury” only to later strike an unlikely and affectionate friendship with Mr. Kim. Mr. Trump boasted about the “love letters” sent to him by the North Korean dictator, flattering missives he valued so much that he took them with him to Mar-a-Lago after office rather than leaving them with the archives as required.
Dispensing with the diplomatic convention that presidents should not meet with adversaries unless a deal was previously worked out or close to it, Mr. Trump sat down three times with Mr. Kim, becoming the first sitting president to see his North Korean counterpart in person. In their last encounter, a get-together at the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas, Mr. Trump even stepped across the line and formally entered North Korea.
But the two reached no lasting agreement restraining North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Instead, Mr. Trump offered unilateral and unreciprocated gestures like agreeing to suspend major joint military exercises with South Korea without first warning either Seoul or the Pentagon.
Mr. Trump also questioned why the United States still maintained a force of 28,500 troops in the country seven decades after the Korean War, leaving the Seoul government of that time uncertain about the American commitment to the alliance.
At one point in 2019, he threatened to pull out 4,000 troops unless South Korea paid $5 billion a year to support the deployment, five times more than it was already spending. In his new memoir, former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper wrote that Mr. Trump even proposed a “complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea,” only to be talked out of it.
Despite Mr. Trump’s suspension of the high-profile military drills, smaller-scale joint exercises with the South Korean military continued during his term. In a joint statement on Saturday, Mr. Biden and Mr. Yoon agreed to start “discussions to expand the scope and scale” of the military exercises.
Mr. Biden said that cooperation between the United States and South Korea showed “our readiness to take on all threats together.” He also said that his administration would collaborate to confront cyberattacks from North Korea.
Mr. Biden’s team is focused on returning to a North Korea strategy aimed at deterrence, according to a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity on Saturday to explain the American president’s thinking. Much like President Barack Obama, for whom he served as vice president, Mr. Biden is open to meeting with Mr. Kim at some point in the future, the official said, but wants to return to the more traditional protocol in which lower-level diplomats engage with the North before he becomes involved.
“It looks to me that the U.S. has defaulted to a posture remarkably similar to the Obama ‘strategic patience’ policy,” said Alexander R. Vershbow, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to South Korea under President George W. Bush. “And they’re getting the same result: no negotiations, more tests, and not even lip service by Pyongyang to the goal of denuclearization.” That said, he added, “even if there were negotiations, it’s unlikely they would make any progress.”
Victor D. Cha, a Georgetown University professor and former Asia adviser to Mr. Bush, said Mr. Biden’s strategy resembles the pre-Trump American formula of insisting on complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program before granting any relief from economic sanctions, a formula known in diplomatic parlance by its initials CVID.
“It’s a return to CVID without talk about unilateral sanctions lifting, quitting exercises, or unilateral peace declarations,” Mr. Cha said. “In that sense, it is normalizing and realigning alliance policy on North Korea. What good is that, you ask? With North Korean obstinance, Chinese apathy, and Russian uncooperativeness, North Korea policy becomes about keeping the allies together and not weakening the alliance. I think that’s what happened today and it’s important.”
But Mr. Biden wants to expand the relationship with South Korea beyond just a security partnership. The day before their bilateral meeting, the president and Mr. Yoon met at a Samsung semiconductor factory to commit to addressing global supply-chain issues that have contributed to soaring inflation in the United States.
Before their joint news conference on Saturday, the two delegations met for several hours — Mr. Yoon’s staff members were overheard discussing with Biden aides, including Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, the history of Korean-American relations and of previous meetings with other allies in the region, among them the Japanese delegation that Mr. Biden will meet with on Monday.
After meeting one-on-one with Mr. Yoon, Mr. Biden said that the two nations would continue to combat climate change and the pandemic and would keep working to ensure that “the Indo-Pacific is a free and open area.” Mr. Biden’s team has previously criticized China’s aggression in the South China Sea.
Mr. Yoon, who came to office promising a tougher approach to North Korea, expressed satisfaction with Mr. Biden’s stance. “President Biden and I see eye to eye on so many fronts,” Mr. Yoon said.
The new South Korean president did not rule out talks with Mr. Kim, and like his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, he offered the prospect of economic assistance for the North. But Mr. Yoon made it clear that the North would have to give up its nuclear weapons, which it has been manifestly unwilling to do. Indeed, in recent days, American intelligence officials have warned that North Korea might test a missile or a nuclear weapon during Mr. Biden’s trip to reassert itself internationally.
“The door to dialogue remains open,” Mr. Yoon said. “If North Korea genuinely embarks upon denuclearization in partnership with the international community, I am prepared to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen its economy and improve the quality of life for its people.”
The meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Yoon also underscored the degree to which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now hovers over all of Mr. Biden’s diplomacy around the world.
“The war against Ukraine isn’t just a matter for Europe,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s an attack on democracy and the core international principles of sovereignty, and the Republic of Korea and the United States are standing together as part of a global response with our allies and partners around the world.”
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