Korean Lesson Number One for Joe Biden: “Maximum Pressure” Is Over

U.S. policymakers should abandon any illusion that they can coerce Pyongyang into denuclearization, let alone democratization, as some human‐​rights activists hope.

February 11, 2021 • Commentary

This article appeared in National Interest on February 11, 2021.

President Joe Biden’s coronavirus stimulus plan hasn’t even made it through Congress and the administration already is facing foreign policy crises in Burma and Russia. Biden and Iranian leaders are sparring over the steps necessary to revive the nuclear agreement, while Saudi officials are whining about his new policy on Yemen.

Every new international challenge pushes North Korea further into the background. Indeed, the president did not even mention the issue in his foreign policy speech last week. No doubt, that lacuna reflects both the issue’s difficulty and the administration’s lack of preparation.

However, the president cannot hope to put the issue into hibernation as a sort of updated variation of the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience.” After all, North Korea’s Kim Jong‐​un always expected to lag China and Russia. Now he surely has noticed that Burma, which poses no security threat to America, has leapfrogged Pyongyang in winning Washington’s attention. So has Yemen. And who knows what country will be next? He will feel increasing pressure to initiate a provocation, most likely one or more missile tests.

Still, the Biden administration should not consider going back to the previous, sanctions‐​heavy strategy. For years hawkish analysts claimed that U.S. policy failed because it was not tough enough. If only Washington added a little more pressure, one more well‐​chosen economic restriction, then North Korea’s leaders would emerge from the Hermit Kingdom, kowtowing and begging for mercy.

Former President Donald Trump tried this approach. His administration sharply increased economic penalties at a time when China was more seriously enforcing UN restrictions. That may have encouraged Pyongyang to negotiate, but Kim did not capitulate, even after the breakdown of the Hanoi summit and dashed expectations of sanctions relief. The Supreme Leader later publicly lamented his failure to improve his people’s living standards rather than offer concessions to America.

More dramatic was the arrival of the coronavirus. Lacking a health care infrastructure capable of handling anything approaching a pandemic, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea last year essentially sanctioned itself, ending most trade. So stringent are the North’s border controls that DPRK security personnel shot and killed a South Korean who apparently was seeking to defect, creating a serious incident for which Kim uncommonly apologized.

The result has been serious hardship, with the disappearance of luxury goods from stores in Pyongyang, but there is no evidence yet of serious social instability or regime weakness. And none may appear. After all, the regime survived mass starvation and death in the late 1990s. Although popular expectations have risen, regime control appears to remain strong.

Equally significant, North Korean military development has proceeded apace. The October military parade was filled with new weapons, ranging from infantry arms to submarine‐​based missiles and a large new ICBM. Last month at the Workers’ Party of Korea congress Kim detailed his expansive plan for upgrading the DPRK’s capabilities.

This means the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign—and any lesser sanctions‐​based strategy—is dead. U.S. policymakers should abandon any illusion that they can coerce Pyongyang into denuclearization, let alone democratization, as some human‐​rights activists hope.

If the North can survive self‐​induced, almost total isolation, it can manage any further U.S. attempts to limit its international economic activities. If Kim’s dynasty hasn’t toppled more than a year after the regime almost hermetically sealed the nation’s borders, then he isn’t likely to fear collapse from the Biden administration’s efforts to close off North Korea’s borders from the outside. On the contrary, he will continue, and perhaps accelerate, plans to develop weapons that both protect his regime and pressure the United States to negotiate.

Lest the administration imagines that it can enlist Beijing and Moscow in a renewed sanctions campaign, it should consider the state of Washington’s relations with both governments. The new Biden crew is threatening unspecified action against the Putin government after the arrest and imprisonment of Navalny. Russia won’t give Washington any freebies involving North Korea.

Through early 2018 the relationship between the DPRK and People’s Republic of China (PRC) was quite frosty, exacerbated by Chinese support for international penalties on the North in response to missile and nuclear tests. However, fear that Beijing’s interests would be sacrificed if North Korea and the United States reached a modus vivendi led to a Chinese reversal and rapid warming of ties.

The veritable collapse of relations between the Xi and Trump governments left the PRC with even less interest than before in easing America’s task. Although China’s patience might be strained if Pyongyang restarts missile tests (and especially nuclear tests), the Xi government still would have good reason not to assist the U.S. in essentially breaking the North’s will. With Washington apparently committed to a policy of neo‐​containment in East Asia, a better armed DPRK less open to engagement with America clearly advances China’s interest.

All of which suggests that time is not on the administration’s side. Yet State Department spokesman Ned Price cited “the risk in moving too soon” and not bringing “along our allies and our partners.” Don’t worry, though, he promised that the president would talk with allies on “ongoing pressure options and [the] potential for future diplomacy” and “adopt a new approach that keeps the American people and our allies safe.”

Alas, Kim is very unlikely to wait patiently for months or years to hear what Washington has chosen to be “ongoing pressure options”—and which will be applied when. He almost certainly is impatient already and will only grow more so when he sees other nations jumping the queue and gaining America’s attention. Hearing rumors about attempts to reconstruct and even enhance Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy likely would encourage Kim to preempt the administration.

Given past history a missile test is the most likely step. Abandoning the self‐​imposed moratorium on testing would return the two countries to 2017 and create pressure on the administration to respond. The time‐​honored but ineffective mechanisms of the past were more sanctions, bomber overflights/​carrier sailings, and forces deployed to the South. All would raise tensions without making anyone more secure. To the contrary, by raising threat levels they would reinforce the case for a DPRK nuclear deterrent.

The nature of the North Korean test would matter. Most dramatic and threatening for the U.S. would be a test of the large missile unveiled in October, presumed capable of hitting America’s homeland and carrying multiple warheads. (Liquid‐​fueled missiles of this type are vulnerable to preemptive attack, but Kim’s wish list includes additional solid‐​fuel developments.)

Tests of intermediate‐​range missiles understandably worry the Republic of Korea and Japan, in particular. However, Pyongyang already has demonstrated its ability to target them. Further testing might refine the threat but would not dramatically expand the danger. Although such missiles also could hit American possessions, such as Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianna Islands, and U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan, those facilities long have been at greater risk—from the Soviet Union during the Cold War and China in recent years.

In contrast, developing an ICBM with a reasonable likelihood of accurately targeting American cities would be transformational. Once it appears likely that the North could bring war to the U.S., Washington would have to recalibrate its relations with both South and North Korea. Would a president be willing to engage in or even threaten war knowing that the result could be the loss of one or more American cities? The policy of extended deterrence would be kaput.

Which would put the Biden administration in an extremely difficult position, to put it mildly. The further the North advances on this track, the greater the pressure to disrupt Pyongyang’s progress. Which would make military strikes a more plausible option, in turn risking full‐​scale war.

The time for action is now. The administration should distinguish between addressing Kim and developing/​implementing a new policy. Without the first, there will not be time for the second. Indeed, without the first, the second could become essentially impossible.

The president or secretary of state should contact Kim. The exact means doesn’t matter much. A note would do. And it could be substantially less passionate than the “love letters” exchanged between Kim and Trump. Or a speech. Even better would be a statement accompanying a small but meaningful gesture, such as eliminating the State Department ban on travel to the DPRK or offering to send coronavirus vaccines to the North.

In any case, the message should indicate that the United States is committed to working with Pyongyang, though time will be required to staff the administration and review the issues. Continued North Korean restraint, Washington should assure, will result in a better and more productive relationship than a return to the sort of behavior that triggered “fire and fury” from the Trump administration and isolation from the Obama administration. To reinforce the incentive for continued peaceful DPRK behavior, the Biden administration might explain that Washington is hoping to forge the kind of agreement that will allow it to begin rolling back sanctions that inhibit the North’s integration into the international community.

North Korea is the problem that every president wants to but cannot ignore. If the Biden administration hopes to avoid big problems in confronting North Korea later during its term, then it better address the North soon. If not, then the president risks finding Burma and Russia to be minor problems compared to the DPRK.

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