Politics

Can Biden Avert a Crisis With North Korea?

The department said in a statement that it would “consult closely with the Republic of Korea, Japan, and other allies and partners about how to best engage” with North Korea.

But the leaders of those two East Asian nations are divided in their approach and remain embroiled in bitter disputes over separate issues of history and war. Japanese officials are critical of Mr. Moon’s North Korea policy. In November, Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state and an experienced negotiator on North Korea and Iran, hosted a meeting with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Washington, but long-running hostilities resulted in an awkward news conference.

Some analysts say Ms. Sherman might be the best American official to lead diplomacy on North Korea. Besides her experience, her position as the second-ranking State Department official gives her stature. In the Trump years, they say, North Korean officials wanted a negotiating partner who was more senior than Stephen E. Biegun, the special envoy. Ms. Sherman could potentially establish a channel with Choe Son-hui, a top North Korean diplomat close to Mr. Kim.

Other American officials have gotten burned on North Korea. The top Asia official in the Biden White House, Kurt Campbell, was assistant secretary of state for East Asia in 2012 when the Obama administration reached the so-called Leap Day Deal with North Korea, which disintegrated within weeks.

One of the biggest dilemmas is how to work with China to curb North Korea’s weapons program. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and his colleagues are balancing various goals: They want to end the disruption caused by Mr. Kim’s weapons while also seeking to avoid a failed state on their border or Pyongyang growing close to Washington or Seoul. A congressional report released on Monday said, “Any Sino-U.S. cooperation on North Korea’s denuclearization will remain constrained by Beijing’s unwillingness to rupture its relationship with Pyongyang completely and lose leverage over North Korea’s foreign policy decisions.”

China is by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner. Although it has approved of U.N. sanctions on occasion, it and Russia began asking in 2019 for partial relief of the Obama- and Trump-era sanctions. For a period, it was enforcing those sanctions, but then it began helping North Korea circumvent them as Beijing-Washington relations deteriorated.

For most of the pandemic, North Korea has kept China at arm’s length, closing the border and rejecting offers of Chinese vaccines. But this month, the two countries reopened their shared border to freight trains. North Korean trains have been carrying cargo from the Chinese border city of Dandong.

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