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Biden, South Korea's President To Discuss North's Nuclear Program


President Biden will welcome South Korea's president to the White House this week. High on their agenda will be what to do about North Korea's nuclear program. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports that Biden is trying a new approach.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Back in March when the White House was still reviewing its North Korea policy, President Biden laid out two options for Pyongyang.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly. But I'm also prepared for some form of diplomacy. But it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.

RASCOE: In his first months in office, Biden finds himself in a quandary that has challenged the U.S. for decades. North Korea has a nuclear arsenal, its bombastic and hostile toward the U.S. and its allies. And despite years of negotiations, threats and sanctions, very little progress has been made toward resolving this situation. Now Biden is trying to find a middle ground. White House press secretary Jen Psaki summed up the strategy this way.


JEN PSAKI: Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience. Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK.

RASCOE: That grand bargain Psaki talked about was tried by former President Donald Trump. After threatening North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, with fire and fury, Trump became the first U.S. president to hold summits with his North Korean counterpart. Trump lavished Kim with praise and promised North Korea economic prosperity if the regime completely dismantled its nuclear program.


DONALD TRUMP: I was really being tough, and so was he. And we were going back and forth, and then we fell in love, OK?


TRUMP: No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters and they're great letters. We fell in love.

RASCOE: But the love was not enough, and no grand bargain ever really materialized. Former President Barack Obama's strategic patience with North Korea had the U.S. hold off on engaging with the regime, maintaining a sort of uneasy status quo. Patrick Cronin of the Hudson Institute says that Trump's aggressive top-level diplomacy gives Biden more latitude to pursue outreach.

PATRICK CRONIN: That gives space for Biden to, below the presidential level, do quite a bit of talking.

RASCOE: The White House has reached out to North Korea through diplomatic channels. The goal is to see if it's possible to get Kim to take small steps toward denuclearization in exchange for proportionate relief from the U.S. Cronin says the key to this will be deciding what's a fair exchange.

CRONIN: The problem is North Korea keeps looking for a bargain, meaning sanctions relief for doing very little, and the Biden administration is not going to go that far.

RASCOE: It's not clear, though, that North Korea even wants to make a deal. Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the success of Biden's policy will really depend on Kim.

VICTOR CHA: North Korea is famously called the land of lousy options because whatever policy we think of, it's never a choice between good and bad. It's a choice between bad options and worse options. So it's quite dissatisfying in that regard.

RASCOE: North Korea often challenges new administrations by conducting long-range missile or nuclear tests. Kim has been restrained so far, but if that changes, Biden's new approach will get even more complicated. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, the White House.


Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.