Joe Biden and North Korea: a Crisis Coming Soon?

The latest North Korean missile tests require the administration to think seriously about how to engage the DPRK.

March 27, 2021 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on March 27, 2021.

At his Thursday press conference, President Joe Biden declared North Korea to be his number one priority. But he’s not acting that way. The president sounded like he might initiate a confrontation for confrontation’s sake. That would be an unnecessary and costly mistake.

Recent presidents seem to have considered the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to be their administrations’ biggest challenge, at least before actually attempting to deal with Pyongyang. Then they ended up slapping a few sanctions on the North and hoping the problem would go away, or at least fade from public view.

At which point the process began anew with their successors.

President Barack Obama was infamous for his policy of strategic patience. Which essentially meant doing nothing on the issue other than imposing a succession of sanctions on Pyongyang. Peace was maintained despite multiple North Korean military provocations in 2010. However, the Kim dynasty continued to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. The process notably quickened after Kim fils ascended what amounted to the communist throne.

Obama greeted his newly elected successor with a warning on North Korea. Donald Trump appeared to take Obama’s advice to heart, threatening “fire and fury” and apparently coming close to war. The consequences of such a conflict would have been catastrophic. Thankfully, Trump soon turned to diplomacy. Despite nearly unanimous criticism of this approach from established Korea watchers, he held two summits followed by a meet‐​and‐​greet at the DMZ.

These worthwhile efforts failed for a number of reasons, but critical was the administration’s demand for full denuclearization before delivery of any benefits. Whether National Security Adviser John Bolton intentionally sabotaged the talks was a matter of speculation. Although the administration’s demand for everything up front subsequently appeared to waiver, the North essentially abandoned the process while pulling back from diplomatic activity around the globe. President Trump, too, appeared to lose interest when it was evident that he was unlikely to score a triumphant photo‐​op before the election. So much for North Korea being the most serious threat facing America.

Now President Biden says he agrees with Obama’s assessment, despite the Trump interregnum. It’s a dubious judgment: Nothing suggests that Kim Jong‐​un is suicidal and plans to strike the U.S. or South Korea. Indeed, the only reason the North would target America is because Washington has intervened in what amounts to a more than 75‐​year‐​long civil war.

In contrast, China is not only a nuclear power, but has the world’s second largest, and still fastest‐​growing, economy, greatly expanding conventional capabilities, and multiple territorial disputes in Asia and in nearby waters, including the South China Sea and Sea of Japan. Add to that Beijing’s trade practices, influence with U.S. allies, global reach, responsibility for COVID-19, and much more. By any sensible reckoning China is a far more important and challenging issue.

In any case, to Biden’s credit, the administration apparently reached out to Pyongyang. The result reportedly was a rebuff, rejecting talks until the U.S. abandons its “hostile” policy. However, that means little since the policy review has not yet been completed. Nothing serious could be discussed before it is finished. Even a rejected overture has communicated that Washington seeks negotiation, indicating that this administration will not be Obama II on Korean issues.

Moreover, Kim’s hostile response in the name of reducing hostility could be primarily tactical. His highly public and frequent emphasis on the economy might suggest something approaching desperation to Washington, which he surely would want to dispel before talks began. Better to be courted than to do the chasing. If he sees advantage to talking, most any gesture by the administration could be presented to the North Korean public as eliminating the “hostile” policy.

More challenging, though not surprising, is resumption of North Korean missile tests. The DPRK deployed cruise missiles, which the president essentially laughed off, a few days before the press conference. Then the day before Pyongyang launched two short‐​range missiles. Doing so had the desired effect, generating a serious reaction.

Japan complained about the threat to “peace and safety.” South Korea spoke of its “great concern.” Biden answered questions on the issue at his press conference: “number one, U.N. Resolution 1718 was violated by those particular missiles that were tested—number one. We’re consulting with our allies and partners. And there will be responses—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.”

Acknowledging the violation helps reverse any impression created by Biden’s laughing dismissal of the cruise missiles that he is unconcerned with missile tests. However, not threatening sanctions this round made sense, essentially mimicking the Trump administration’s earlier response in similar circumstances. Short‐​range tests merely reinforce existing capabilities, rather than make the dramatic step of putting the American homeland at risk. Moreover, sanctions would certainly delay and possibly end negotiations even before the administration has completed its review.

Of course, the Republic of Korea and Japan are in range, hence Biden’s promise to consult. Nevertheless, another round of sanctions would make neither safer. In truth, the best American response would be to instruct both governments that if they are worried about their security they should spend more on their militaries and add retaliatory capabilities and missile defenses, rather than expect satisfaction from Washington.

Biden’s threat to respond to any escalation presumably was designed to discourage an ICBM test, which would advance the North’s objective of creating a credible nuclear deterrent against the world’s most powerful nation. For that Pyongyang needs a small but sure force with the capability to strike several American cities. Such a test almost certainly would prompt widespread calls for a tough reaction by Washington. More penalties, in turn, likely would short‐​circuit any bilateral diplomatic initiatives.

Unsurprisingly, the DPRK was unhappy with the president’s statement. Ri Pyong Chol, secretary of the communist party central committee, announced: “We express our deep apprehension over the U.S. chief executive faulting the regular test fire, exercise of our state’s right to self‐​defense, as the violation of U.N. ‘resolutions’ and openly revealing his deep‐​seated hostility.” However, Biden’s “thoughtless remarks,” as Ri termed them, pose no more obstacle than the regime’s earlier stricture against America’s “hostile” policy.

The president rightly indicated his willingness to engage, but the terms he set might pose a problem: doing so would be “conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.” That matters little if it simply means reiterating the Singapore statement’s terms: “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The exact meaning would remain to be negotiated even as officials recognized the small likelihood of ultimately fulfilling that goal. The short‐​term emphasis would be on taking meaningful steps to promote regional security and stability while advancing toward ultimate denuclearization.

In contrast, if the president meant that nothing could be discussed before denuclearization, then he probably ended negotiations before they started. The two governments would be prevented from agreeing to actions that would benefit both sides, build up trust, and satisfy the North’s desired reduction in “hostility.” Possibilities include ending travel restrictions, opening diplomatic ties, exploring potential economic ties, expanding cultural relations, engaging in confidence‐​building measures, and implementing conventional arms limitation.

No doubt, the Biden administration wants to avoid a repeat of the Trump experience—superficial statements and PR summits that yield little of substance. However, if there is a serious chance of denuclearization, and of that I remain doubtful, it will only occur if other goals are achieved first. For instance, the Singapore statement mentions better bilateral relations and regional security. This would require promoting contacts and activities with no direct relationship to denuclearization. Blocking them until denuclearization is achieved makes it even less likely that denuclearization will be achieved.

After his press conference, we now know that President Biden is thinking about Korea. Despite his contrary claim, it almost certainly is not his top priority. However, the latest North Korean missile tests require the administration to think seriously about how to engage the DPRK. While denuclearization might remain the president’s top priority, it should not be his only priority. Much good could be done while taking even a lengthy path toward denuclearization that never reaches its official objective.

About the Author