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What Approach Biden Will Need To Take To Maintain U.S.-North Korea Relationship

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump claims North Korea as one of his administration's success stories. He has said that if not for his summit meetings with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, the U.S. would be at war with North Korea. But as President-elect Biden prepares to take over, he faces a country that now has a bigger nuclear arsenal than when Trump took office. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: President Trump has at times used flowery language to describe his personal chemistry with Kim Jong Un. Here he is at a rally in 2018.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He wrote me beautiful letters, and they're great letters. We fell in love.

KUHN: This approach was a high-stakes gamble to get North Korea to denuclearize, and it failed. At a summit in Vietnam in 2019, Kim offered to dismantle some of his nuclear facilities in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump said it was a bad deal.

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TRUMP: Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times. And I'll let Mike...

KUHN: But Trump's gamble did spark some hopes for a breakthrough. Joel Wit, director of the 38 North program at the Stimson Center in Washington, says Biden may need to incorporate parts of Trump's experience into his playbook.

JOEL WIT: The ideal outcome for a Biden administration would be to pursue both a bottom-up and top-down policy.

KUHN: In other words, start with working-level talks, move up to the secretary of state level, and then bring in the leaders to seal the deal. One concern, though, is that while Biden has his hands full with his transition and other domestic issues, Kim will get antsy and start testing nuclear weapons or missiles to get his attention.

Cho Seong-Ryoul is an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a government-funded think tank in Seoul. He says that Kim can now afford to show restraint.

CHO SEONG-RYOUL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "North Korea now claims that it's completed developing its nuclear weapons," he says, "so there's not much need for them to conduct additional nuclear or ICBM tests."

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KUHN: Last month, Kim Jong Un presided over a military parade at which he revealed for the first time a huge missile, even larger than the one he has that is thought to be capable of reaching all of the continental U.S. Analyst Cho says Kim wants to trade at least part of his arsenal for sanctions relief, and he can't afford to blow his chance.

CHO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "If North Korea conducts nuclear or missile tests in the first half of next year," he says, "as the Biden administration assembles its security and foreign policy team, North Korea may never again be able to denuclearize through negotiations with the U.S." and get sanctions relief and security guarantees. This does not mean, though, that Biden can go back to the Obama administration's policy of so-called strategic patience, which aimed to ignore rather than reward Pyongyang's provocations.

Joel Wit says some people still believe that the U.S. just needs to give sanctions time to work and starve Pyongyang back to the bargaining table. But he says the experience of the past two decades shows otherwise.

WIT: It should disabuse us of the notion that time is on our side and not on the North Korean side. It is on their side, and they've used those 20 years to build up, as everyone knows, a very capable arsenal.

KUHN: And with that arsenal comes political leverage over the U.S. That's why Wit says President-elect Biden needs to get off to a quick start on the North Korea issue so as not to surrender the strategic initiative to Chairman Kim.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.