|U.S. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken / AFP-Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
Given his past hardline stance against North Korea, many predict that nominee for U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, may favor putting more pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang to drive the country toward denuclearization under the upcoming Joe Biden administration.
But diplomatic experts believe that Blinken is unlikely to just pursue an approach of isolating the reclusive state ― a policy adopted by the Barack Obama administration, in which he served as deputy secretary of state ― considering his recent indications that he is prepared to sit down with the "rogue state."
Biden appointed Blinken to be secretary of state, Monday, while Jake Sullivan, a former senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, was named as his new national security adviser.
"Blinken has signaled he is willing to deal with U.S. adversaries in the past," said Harry Kazianis, a senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest.
"Blinken was a champion of the Iran nuclear deal, showing he does not have a problem dealing with rogue states that have nuclear ambitions that Washington wants to negate. The challenge, of course, is that Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons, while North Korea not only has nuclear weapons but now ICBMs that can kill millions of Americans, and that could very well mean he won't use the same strategies."
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor in International Relations at King's College London, echoed Kazianis' view.
"There are sufficient signals that the Biden administration is going to pursue negotiations with North Korea as long as Pyongyang doesn't shut down the diplomatic door with ICBM or nuclear tests," said Pacheco Pardo, who doubles as KF-VUB Korea Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.
According to him, Blinken has said in that past that an Iran-type deal would be the best-case scenario in dealing with the North's nuclear program, but the North is much more advanced than Iran was with its weapons development.
"This will entail working-level negotiations, policymakers and experts from the U.S., North Korea and others including South Korea reaching an agreement, and looking for a realistic first agreement focusing on arms control that freezes and starts to roll back Pyongyang's nuclear program," he added.
Van Jackson, a professor at Victoria University of Wellington and former Pentagon official, said Blinken may temper his hawkish style on the North, considering the alliance between the South and the U.S.
"His instinct is almost certainly to take a hard line on North Korea, but because of the fact that South Korea now has a progressive government that wants to see more flexibility in the U.S. negotiating position, Blinken might be willing to soften his stance for the sake of alliance management," he said, describing Blinken as a "smart, technocratic liberal internationalist."
Jackson added that who will become a special envoy for North Korea will indicate the president-elect's policy direction because that person will be "decisive when it comes to what happens in the coming months and years."
Given that Biden was Obama's right-hand man and Blinken was a key stakeholder in the Obama administration's policy toward the North, there are growing whispers here over the possibility of "strategic patience 2.0" under the new U.S. administration.
"Strategic patience" is the former Obama administration's North Korea policy, which meant no engagement with the reclusive state as long as its leadership persisted with nuclear development and ballistic missile testing. But many critics say this policy actually failed to address the North's ever-growing nuclear and missile programs.
They noted that a return to the policy is unlikely.
"There are sufficient clues that the Biden administration won't go back to strategic patience," Pacheco Pardo said. "To begin with, it is widely regarded as a failure and even former Obama administration officials have acknowledged that it didn't work. After all, even Obama moved away from strategic patience toward the end of his tenure with the appointment of Joseph Yun as North Korea envoy."
During his election campaign, Biden was critical of U.S. President Donald Trump's top-down approach with the North ― an unorthodox diplomatic tactic that led Trump to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on three occasions, after which Kim imposed a halt to missile and nuclear tests ― and his election indicates that the U.S. will institute major changes in its North Korea policy.
Kazianis advised the Biden administration to build on what has been achieved by its predecessor, and not tear it down.
"I think the real danger is how far Blinken advises Biden to move away from Trump's North Korea policy," he said.
"Clearly, Blinken did not favor the sort of top-down approach Trump used to hold three meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and has made statements that seem to indicate he wants to put more pressure on North Korea to drive them toward denuclearization ― a big mistake we should have learned already that does not work."
Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said the new U.S. administration's stance seems to focus on negotiations with the North, citing the appointees' track records.
"Given that both Blinken and Sullivan worked on the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, the foreign policy team is expected to pursue negotiations with the North for a denuclearization agreement," Park said.
"Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration wants to freeze the North's nuclear program in a phase-out manner, but it remains to be seen if the country will positively respond to the plan. Otherwise, the U.S. may consider using sanctions."
In order to capture Biden's attention, the North is anticipated to stage a military provocation in the near future, which could affect the new American government's North Korea policy, according to Kazianis.
"Team Biden will be guided in large part by what North Korea does from now until early spring. If the North exercises restraint ― that means no missile tests of any type and no nuclear weapons tests ― that could influence their thinking to be more flexible," he said.
"This is why the Moon Jae-in government must use all of its North Korean contacts to drive home the message that provocations now or into the spring will only blow up in their face."