Biden taps career diplomat as special envoy for North Korea

·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·4 min read

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Friday tapped career U.S. diplomat Sung Kim as his special envoy to North Korea, marking what could be a critical step toward reengaging with Pyongyang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the second foreign leader to visit the White House during Biden’s tenure, welcomed Kim’s appointment on Friday, describing it as “the first commitment of the U.S. for exploring diplomacy,” demonstrating “readiness for dialogue with North Korea.”

The White House completed its North Korea policy review at the end of April, in close consultation with its allies in South Korea and the region.

Biden, during a joint press conference with President Moon, said his ultimate goal is denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He acknowledged it won’t be easy. “I want to make practical progress,” he said. “We’re under no illusions how difficult this is.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Korea And Japan Sung Kim testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill October 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sung Kim testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So far, the administration has provided more detail about what its North Korea strategy will not be, rather than sharing its own plans. Biden told reporters on Friday that unlike President Donald Trump, if he or his senior officials were to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, they would not “give him all that he’s looking for and allow him to move in a direction of appearing to be more serious about what he wasn’t serious about.”

“Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki in early May, distancing Biden’s strategy from that of his predecessors, both Trump and Barack Obama. Instead, it will consist of a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy,” she continued.

Sung Kim, who is currently the acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has a long history serving in the region, including as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea under President Obama. In 2008 he served as the U.S. special envoy for the so-called six-party talks, meetings where representatives from North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States discussed limiting North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, which achieved brief success before Pyongyang pulled out of talks in 2009.

U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in at the White House, in Washington, U.S. May 21, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and climate envoy John Kerry at a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and others at the White House on Friday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

During a background briefing with journalists prior to the joint press conference, a senior administration official explained that the Biden administration is trying to be “flexible” in its approach toward North Korea. “The process is likely to be challenging,” the official said.

Moon, who has only one year left in office, has focused during his presidency on leaving a legacy of peace with his northern neighbors. Speaking through a translator during the press conference on Friday, Moon declared denuclearization “the more urgent common task that our two countries must face.”

Moon has recently pushed to partner economically with the North and loosen sanctions, and he worked hand in hand with Trump to ramp up direct diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, leading to a highly publicized, first-of-its-kind summit between the two leaders in Singapore in 2018.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends a welcoming ceremony and review an honour guard at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1, 2019. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in 2019. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)

One of Moon’s major reasons for visiting Washington is to “ensure the Biden administration policy incorporates his ‘peace agenda’ for the Korean peninsula,” wrote David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focused on North Korea, in an email to Yahoo News. Moon spoke earlier this week about his intentions of finding a breakthrough in long-stalled peace negotiations with Pyongyang.

While the White House has made at least one attempt to reach out to North Korea, Pyongyang so far has refused to respond, arguing it will engage when Washington drops its “hostile” attitude, according to statements released by state news agency KCNA.

“Washington and Seoul have different priorities and timelines, but these differences will not cause tensions as long as North Korea rejects all forms of dialogue,” wrote Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA analyst focused on North Korea, in an email.

“Divisions would be more evident if Kim were to initiate another charm offensive,” he concluded.

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