Days before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, Barack Obama gave him an urgent warning: North Korea was a serious threat and might soon be capable of marrying a nuclear warhead to a long-range missile that could reach American shores.
Almost four years after that meeting at the White House, as Trump faces the prospect of possibly turning over the presidency to Joe Biden, there is little evidence the danger has been reduced, despite the most sustained and aggressive diplomacy of Trump’s tenure.
If anything, North Korea poses a greater threat, according to Korea specialists: The country has tested and developed more weapons; its leader, Kim Jong Un, has become less isolated; and international resolve to confront North Korea has weakened after Trump’s three meetings with Kim.
Victor Cha, who negotiated with North Korea for President George W. Bush and was once considered for a top post in the Trump administration, warned in a recent podcast of “the big choice that’s coming down” as North Korea’s weapons program advances. Soon, he said, North Korea may reach the point at which American leaders will have to consider tacitly accepting the country as a nuclear power in exchange for limits and verification of Pyongyang’s stockpile.
Cha did not advocate that approach, which would be a fundamental change from decades of American insistence that North Korea drop its nuclear program entirely. But the fact that he broached it points to the lack of options America has in dealing with the secretive and autocratic adversary.
North Korea wants to be "like an India or Pakistan," both of which developed nuclear weapons in violation of international anti-proliferation efforts, said Jung Pak, who helped with transition efforts at the CIA when Trump took office and is now an informal advisor to Biden. "Everybody just looks the other way.”
Kim “needs periodic bouts of tension and military aggression to maintain his rule," Pak said. "So he doesn’t want peace.”
Trump still believes he can campaign on the issue, claiming in an interview in July that “if Democrats had gotten in, we would right now be in a war.”
There is no way to prove or disprove the assertion, which many Democrats have denied. Danny Russel, an assistant secretary of State for Asia under President Obama, and Pak both said that during Obama’s tenure there were tense moments when limited military options were scrutinized.
But Trump’s 2017 threat to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea “was the closest” the countries came to a confrontation in recent years, Pak said.
Trump’s declaration in 2018, after his first meeting with Kim, that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat” rings increasingly hollow, according to experts who served administrations of both parties.
In John Bolton’s recent memoir about his time serving as Trump’s national security advisor, he portrayed Trump as ill-informed about history, unwilling to prepare for talks with Kim and obsessed with media coverage — with the president telling Bolton that he was “prepared to sign a substance-free communique, have a press conference to declare victory, and then get out" of Singapore.
Kim and his ruling circle “think they’ve got Trump’s number,” said Susan Thornton, who served as acting assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific during Trump’s first 18 months in office.
The North Korean autocrat has sent several signals suggesting he wants Trump to win in November, labeling Biden “a rabid dog” that needs to be beaten. Some Korea analysts believe the North is making a calculated effort to refrain from provoking the United States during the campaign, even as Pyongyang takes aim at South Korea, blowing up a joint liaison office in Kaesong in mid-June.
“They want Trump to be able to keep saying he has basically fixed the North Korea situation …glossing over the notion that they’re still building up weapons, and they’re still shooting off short-range missiles,” said Thornton, who spent 28 years at the State Department.
Neither the Trump campaign nor the Biden campaign has released a plan for dealing with North Korea. The White House declined to allow any official to be interviewed on the record about the potential future of North Korea policy.
Interviews with officials in and out of government and the Biden campaign suggest that if Trump is reelected he will continue his efforts at diplomacy with Kim. Biden would try to firm up international sanctions and cooperation with regional allies, waiting for an opening to restart more traditional low-level negotiations — essentially resuming Obama’s approach.
Advisors to Biden also said they would restore pressure on North Korea over its human rights abuses, a contrast with Trump’s approach to downplaying Kim’s record of killings and mass incarcerations.
But even Biden’s campaign advisors offered little hope of an easy fix. They said that, near the end of Obama’s term, they believed they might have had an opening to make progress. At the time, China and U.S. regional allies had pushed Kim closer to desperation.
But they argue that Trump has squandered the opportunity by giving Kim the international legitimacy he craves and by halting major joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea that Kim views as a threat.
“It’s going to be a real heavy lift to get us back to a place where we’re actually advancing interests,” said Antony Blinken, Biden's foreign policy advisor, who served in several top positions in the Obama administration.
Advisors did not point to many specific actions Biden took in forming Obama’s policy toward North Korea, but they made general note of his leading role in dealing with American allies — South Korea and Japan — as well as with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, each of whose support is necessary for economic sanctions against North Korea to have an effect.
“The approach that Biden supported was more along the lines of a war of attrition with North Korea,” Russel said. “If giving up its nuclear program is the last thing on earth that North Korea wants to do, we need to make it the last thing on earth that North Korea can do in order to survive.”
But that approach takes time and sustained effort at keeping together a fragile coalition, and it carries the risk that Kim will keep building nuclear weapons and possibly provoke a military confrontation. North Korea improved its missile capabilities and testing during Obama's presidency.
Although some believe Kim might give up his nuclear weapons if he could stay in power and unlock his country’s economy, others argue he sees weapons as his only leverage, both domestically and abroad, and would never give them up.
“I’m frustrated that in a sense time ran out on what we were doing,” said Blinken, who acknowledged he could not prove the Obama-Biden approach, sometimes dubbed “strategic patience,” was close to bearing fruit.
Ken Farnaso, the Trump campaign’s deputy press secretary, said in a statement that Trump “inherited a broken and openly hostile U.S.-N.K. relationship from his predecessors” that left North Korea as “the preeminent international threat to the United States.”
“President Trump aimed to deescalate tensions with Kim Jong Un while still applying maximum political and economic pressure on the rogue regime, allowing for two historic summits further demonstrating the administration’s commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula,” he continued.
Trump has repeatedly expressed a willingness to hold another summit. His top negotiator, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, was in the region this month, but North Korea preemptively rejected talks while accusing the United States of hostility.
Cha said in an email that he believed Trump would almost certainly pursue more summits with Kim “not because he wants denuclearization but because he loves the media frenzy.”
He worries Trump — who has repeatedly complained about the costs of basing American troops in South Korea while trying to drive up the amount that Seoul pays to have them — will seek to pull them out. The Wall Street Journal reported in July that the Pentagon had presented the White House with options for reducing the force.
Many analysts believe that would not only ease pressure on Kim, but also fundamentally shift power in the region toward China, while ratcheting up the potential for war.
“The North Koreans would much rather see Trump than Biden,” Cha added. “Trump is the perfect mark: loves the show, doesn’t care about substance and hates the alliance — the polar opposite of Biden.”