The Bromance Between Kim Jong Un and Trump Ends With Biden

The President-elect will likely shift from the White House's flattering approach to more time-honored policy on North Korea.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
November 12, 2020, 6:53am
North Korea and Trump
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un speaks as he stands with US President Donald Trump south of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

With Joe Biden's victory over Donald Trump, attention is turning to how the President-elect plans to deal with America's allies and enemies. But on North Korea, most experts agree that a Biden administration will take a very different approach to the "bromance" between Trump and dictator Kim Jong Un

Trump and Kim have met three times since 2018. He once claimed that Kim wrote him "beautiful letters" and that they "fell in love", though the saccharine exchanges have resulted in little meaningful policy changes.

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United States President-elect Biden, however, has signalled those days are over. During the second presidential debate in October, Biden called Kim a "thug" while condemning Trump for legitimizing North Korea and letting them "have more capable missiles." 

Meanwhile, North Korean state media has called Biden a "rabid dog" that "must be beaten to death," in response to criticism of the regime during his campaign for the presidency last year.

Kim has stayed mum on the result of the U.S. election, and has not released a statement since Biden won. Although North Korea has historically presented itself as indifferent to the U.S. vote, experts say the silence could indicate bitterness over Biden's win.

Kim's preference for Trump is rooted in a top-down approach that aims at pulling off speedy and efficient deals through direct talks, according to observers. That made possible the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit in 2018.

"The letters sent by Kim released in famed journalist Bob Woodward's book 'Rage', shows that the Supreme Leader wants to achieve what he wants via the relationship with Trump," Park Won-gon, a professor of International Studies at Handong Global University, told VICE News.

Woodward acquired more than two-dozen letters in which Kim fawns over Trump, calls him "Your Excellency," and says meeting again would be "reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film."

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Biden's administration will likely focus on low-level talks first before pressing ahead with any hastily arranged summits between the world leaders.

"North Korea does not welcome the bottom-up approach since they have to be inspected and their nuclear capacity verified more rigorously by the U.S.," Kim Joon-hyung, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA) and former professor, told VICE News. 

Biden has stressed North Korea's need to meet commitments. During a presidential debate, Biden said he would meet with Kim "on the condition that he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity. The Korean peninsula should be a nuclear free zone." This would bring the U.S. back in line with how former leaders dealt with North Korea.

"Biden wants to see a clear commitment to move forward while Trump wants to come to a compromise between requirements," James Kim, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told VICE News. "If what the South Korea government wants is an inter-Korean economic cooperation or aid to North Korea, it could be against Biden's style." 

But Biden may shift slightly from the administration of Barack Obama when he served as vice-president. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who left Washington right after the election results came in, told reporters that the U.S. President-elect is unlikely to adopt the "strategic patience" of the eight-year Obama administration, which hoped sanctions would ultimately push the North into denuclearization. 

"I don't think that Biden would adopt the Obama administration's approach that has been criticized for having no effect," KNDA chancellor Kim explained. "Obama's 'strategic patience' on North Korea turned into 'strategic neglect', which ended up a failed policy."

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Koh Yu-hwan, the president of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) and former professor of North Korean Studies, told VICE News that Biden's path will likely resemble the more active engagement taken under former president Bill Clinton.

Kim may also see Biden focus more on maintaining the robust relationship with South Korea and other traditional U.S. allies who received uneven attention from Trump

Though Trump has so far refused to concede, leaders of countries with the strongest ties to the U.S. were quick to congratulate Biden.

That includes South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had a phone call with Biden this week in which the President-elect said he wanted to "strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance as the linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region," according to a readout. He added that he looked forward to working on other "shared challenges," including North Korea.

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