The latest IAEA report that North Korea has restarted the Yongbyon nuclear reactor reflects Pyongyang’s calculation that Washington is not interested in negotiating. This was predictable, and why I urged President Biden to chart a new path forward early on in his presidency rather than wait until a crisis forced him to adopt a more pragmatic approach.
Currently, President Biden’s North Korea policy appears to be one of rhetorical openness to talks without any indication of a genuine willingness to compromise on hard issues such as sanctions, which previously scuttled talks in Hanoi. President Biden has yet to indicate his desire to formally end the Korean War, which would require diplomacy with Pyongyang and Beijing, in close consultation with Seoul, or to seriously explore how the U.S. can best support peace and stability on the Korean peninsula over the long term.
Unlike in Afghanistan, where President Biden bucked the establishment to end the 20-year war, Kim Jong Un apparently believes that Biden feels no sense of urgency in pursuing a more cooperative path with North Korea. While it is understandable that the North Koreans would arrive at such a conclusion, especially amid the situation in Afghanistan, this was not inevitable.
To avoid the predictable cycle of escalation, which could lead to dangerous standoffs and miscalculations, policymakers in Washington and Pyongyang should answer a simple question: what is the ultimate objective here?
For Washington’s part, there is no evidence of long-term strategic thinking about North Korea beyond denuclearization — a highly technical process that would take years, if not decades, to implement and verify. Virtually everything hinges upon North Korea’s cooperation on the nuclear weapons issue up front, rather than a step-by-step process that prioritizes longstanding political issues such as formally ending the Korean War with eventual denuclearization.
Pyongyang remains equally short-sighted in its approach to the United States. In recent months, it refused multiple offers from Washington to talk and suspended the short-lived inter-Korean hotline that resumed on the 68th anniversary of the armistice agreement. By quietly restarting its primary nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, Kim Jong Un seems to think that only fear will move Americans to offer something new in exchange for cooperation on denuclearization.
The fact is Both Biden and Kim have a shared interest in rejecting old assumptions about the other side and casting a more constructive vision for bilateral relations. Equally important is the shared interest between Biden and Xi Jinping toward progress on the North Korea issue. Indeed, Washington and Beijing must find common ground and a shared outlook for the Korean peninsula that is not destabilizing, overly controlled by foreign powers, or relegates Korean people as forever beholden to other countries for their defense. Such a vision will require diplomacy and trust, and must be guided by the belief that the future of the Korean peninsula should be determined by the Korean people.
In this sense, “great power competition” is an obstacle for the type of work that lies ahead in resolving the North Korea challenge. The growing antagonism between Washington and Beijing is fueling an increase in U.S. defense spending at a time when nonmilitary solutions are the only way of building mutual understanding and reducing tensions with North Korea. Washington’s obsession with China could lead to North Korea’s cynical exploitation of this dynamic as well.
For example, on August 6, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the ASEAN Regional Forum said that the U.S.-ROK military exercises were "not constructive" and called on Washington to avoid any actions that could trigger tension with North Korea. Three days later, Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong threatened "severe national security threats" upon the United States and South Korea, demanding that "invasion forces and war equipment in South Korea...be removed." Such strong words could be intended to instill anxiety among Americans that North Korea may be ganging up on the United States with China, not just over the issue of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises but on the broader question of U.S. force posture.
Ultimately, North Korea is a complex issue that demands rigorous examination and debate, not only regarding the size of its nuclear arsenal but also Pyongyang’s foreign policy and long-term vision in a rapidly changing part of the world. The IAEA report’s findings should be a wake-up call to those who advocate for “maximum pressure,” “strategic patience,” and other failed U.S. policies of the past that punt on the question of what our long-term goal on the peninsula is.