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Biden's North Korea policy is floundering in Trump territory

If the president wants to prove that 'diplomacy is back,' he needs to step it up and start shedding past failed approaches.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The Biden administration’s North Korea policy review has finished, but the administration’s North Korea policy is no clearer than it was a few months ago. 

If you don’t know what President Biden intends to do with this policy, that is because the president himself seems unsure of how to proceed beyond repeating the same old lines about denuclearization. Earlier this year, administration officials couldn’t get their own message straight as they offered dueling definitions of the U.S. goal in negotiations with North Korea. For now, the administration is content to define their policy in terms of what it is not: it is not a return to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” it is not the pursuit of a “grand bargain,” and it will not involve a repeat of Trump’s high-profile but meaningless summits. 

The U.S. keeps saying that it is willing to pursue a diplomatic solution, but so far Biden has shown no sign of making any of the necessary changes that would make diplomacy effective. Biden recognizes that none of his predecessors has succeeded in achieving the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but he remains wedded to that completely unrealistic goal. If the president doesn’t begin showing greater flexibility on sanctions and more attentiveness to South Korean concerns, he will be continuing some of the worst parts of Trump’s North Korea policy.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently pleaded in an interview with The New York Times to make engagement with North Korea a priority. “The most important starting point for both governments is to have the will for dialogue and to sit down face to face at an early date,” he said. When Moon comes to Washington later this month, it seems unlikely that Biden will give him the answer he wants. Biden was slow to begin the process of salvaging the nuclear deal with Iran, and on North Korea there has been absolutely no urgency in trying to resume talks. 

Biden mentioned both Iran and North Korea only briefly in his first address to Congress, and by pairing them together he made it sound as if they were comparable threats. This greatly exaggerates the threat from Iran and downplays the one posed by North Korea. Mentioning them together suggests that Biden sees them both as similar problems that can be resolved the same way. In just the few years since Biden was last in office, North Korea’s arsenal has developed significantly, and it makes no sense to compare a state with ICBMs and dozens of nuclear warheads to one that possesses and seeks neither. North Korea has responded angrily to Biden’s latest remarks and warned of a crisis in the near future if the U.S. didn’t change its approach.

While it should be a straightforward matter of providing adequate sanctions relief to persuade Iran to return to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), there is no chance of a similar accord with North Korea now that they have built a sophisticated nuclear weapons program. The threat from North Korea, while manageable, is considerably greater, and counterintuitively the ambitions of U.S. diplomacy need to be much more limited as a result. North Korea isn’t disarming, and the U.S. isn’t in a position to force them to do so. The U.S. has to set its sights lower, and it needs to provide incentives for cooperation rather than just threatening to bludgeon the other government with more sanctions.  

As a candidate, Biden criticized Trump’s engagement with North Korea because it was supposedly too accommodating. This fit in nicely with Biden’s charge that Trump was too cozy with dictators, but as a description of North Korea policy it was mistaken. Biden couldn’t or wouldn’t admit that it was Trump’s inflexibility on sanctions relief and his maximalist demands for North Korea’s disarmament that doomed the talks. If Biden wants to prove that “diplomacy is back,” he and his administration will have to show greater flexibility and more openness to making concessions on sanctions than his predecessors have. 

Greater flexibility on sanctions relief would also serve the interests of South Korea. That would enable their government to pursue increased cooperation and engagement with North Korea that U.S. sanctions currently block. The best thing the U.S. could do in the near term is to support South Korea’s engagement policy and encourage the rapprochement that Moon began three years ago before Trump’s maximalism derailed everything. The U.S. would also be helping itself, as better relations between Seoul and Pyongyang would presumably lead to fewer North Korean provocations and reduced tensions between the U.S. and the DPRK. Biden likes to emphasize the importance of U.S. alliances in his foreign policy speeches, and this would be an opportunity to advance both U.S. and South Korean interests by taking our ally’s concerns and priorities seriously.

A more limited arms control approach with North Korea is warranted. While it is true that it will be challenging to get North Korea to agree to and then comply with restrictions on the size and deployment of its nuclear weapons, this is not an insurmountable obstacle. Provided that North Korea receives the sanctions relief that it wants, there should be a compromise on verification that they are willing to accept. We cannot begin to hammer out the details of that until we accept that this is an arms control problem and not a question of disarmament. 

If disarmament is taken off the table, North Korea might prove to be more cooperative than we would usually expect. The purpose of verification mechanisms in every arms control and nonproliferation agreement is to guard against the predictable tendency of governments to evade the limits they have said they would accept. North Korean duplicity is hardly news, but this is not the biggest problem with using an arms control approach. The greater difficulty in arms control talks with any other government right now is that U.S. promises of sanctions relief are almost impossible to believe. 

Not only does the U.S. tend to impose sanctions on the same entities for multiple reasons, thus rendering the sanctions effectively un-liftable, but North Korea is well-aware of Washington's habit of convincing a government to make extensive concessions and then refusing to honor our part of the bargain. In the most extreme cases of Iraq and Libya, the U.S. got what it wanted from the targeted governments on these issues and then turned around and attacked them later anyway for other reasons. Biden’s efforts to undo the damage to the JCPOA caused by Trump may help reassure North Korea that the new administration is more likely to honor the promises it makes, but the seesaw of partisan control in Washington makes it hard for any foreign government to trust that a U.S. commitment made today will be respected tomorrow. 

Despite these difficulties, the U.S. needs to resume talks with North Korea soon to avert a crisis. The Biden administration needs to do this in the context of a different approach that tacitly accepts the reality that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state. The U.S. and its allies are not going to eliminate that threat, but they can manage it through arms control.

South Korea Army 1st Lt. Choi Min Kyu, left, points across the border into North Korea while briefing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden Dec. 7, 2013, during a visit to Observation Post Ouelette in South Korea. Biden's three-day visit underscored the commitment of the U.S. administration to its alliance with South Korea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Church/Released)
Analysis | Asia-Pacific
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