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Washington’s Stagnant North Korea Policy Needs to Change

Mar 04, 2022

It was probably too much to hope that Joe Biden’s administration, populated almost entirely by members of the stodgy U.S. foreign policy establishment, might nevertheless occasionally be the architect of needed policy changes in some regions of the world. However, the ossified nature of Washington’s Korea policy has been disappointing even by that modest set of expectations. U.S. policy toward Pyongyang is essentially on autopilot with no clear course and even less prospect of a safe landing. Instead, the likelihood of yet another crisis involving North Korea is rising. A more creative, flexible approach by the Biden foreign policy team is becoming urgent. East Asia’s major powers, especially China, have a vested interest in prodding Washington to take that step. 

One indication of impending trouble is that North Korea has again begun to rattle its sabers, or more specifically, its missiles, after an extended period of relative quiescence. During January, Pyongyang set a new record by conducting 7 missile tests in a single month. Kim Jong-Un’s government capped off the series by marking the lunar New Year with a dramatic test of an intermediate-range missile capable of reaching the U.S. territory of Guam. The firing of the Hwasong-12 was the country’s longest-range launch since 2017 when it tested 3 missiles that appeared to have the ability to reach targets in the United States.

The sudden flurry of tests punctuated Kim’s apparent realization that all hopes for establishing a normal bilateral relationship with Washington are now in the rear view mirror. Such hopes rose dramatically in 2018 when Donald Trump’s administration seemed to abandon the entrenched U.S. policy of trying to isolate North Korea. Trump’s willingness to hold multiple summit meetings with Kim—in June 2018, February 2019, and July 2019—were symbols of a more realistic and flexible U.S. approach. The video image of Trump briefly crossing into North Korea during the third summit was especially powerful symbolism that a more constructive, cordial relationship might be on the horizon.

But symbolism alone can go only so far. Trump faced intense (often partisan) domestic criticism of his outreach to Pyongyang, including frequent smears from Democrats that he was Kim’s friend and apologist. As the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Biden slammed Trump for being too soft on Kim (as well as other dictators) and emphasized that he would not even meet with the North Korean leader absent Pyongyang’s explicit commitment to denuclearization.

That opposition, combined with policy sabotage by National Security Advisor John Bolton and other hardliners on the president’s own foreign policy team, doomed the second summit and the entire campaign to improve bilateral relations. The abrupt end of the February session in Hanoi occurred because the U.S. side refused to back away from Washington’s long-standing (and unrealistic) demand that Pyongyang take major steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations could proceed on other issues. The third summit was a last, desperate attempt to revive the flagging rapprochement, and when that effort failed to produce meaningful results, Kim’s government revived its hostile, combative rhetoric a few months later.

It was notable, though, that dangerous, disruptive actions on Pyongyang’s part were slower to re-emerge. Kim seemed to be playing a waiting game throughout 2020 and 2021. Initially, the likely motive was keeping policy changes on hold until the outcome of the U.S. presidential election was clear. If Trump won a second term, he might be inclined to revive the stalled rapprochement, since he would be less worried about the possible negative domestic political consequences. Conversely, if Biden emerged victorious, a new administration might be willing to adopt a fresh approach to relations with Pyongyang.

North Korea has not conducted a nuclear-weapons test since September 2017—just before the Trump administration displayed a willingness to hold direct bilateral talks. It also implemented a self-imposed moratorium on even short-range missile tests. Launches of short-range missiles resumed only when it became apparent that the prospect of a breakthrough in relations with Washington had ended. North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear tests remains in effect for the time being, as does the moratorium on ICBM launches. However, it is increasingly uncertain how long that lingering manifestation of restraint will continue, if no new policy initiatives are forthcoming from the Biden administration. 

Unfortunately, there are few signs of such a benign development. The president’s commitment to the futile zombie policy of trying to isolate the country was confirmed when Washington imposed new sanctions following the January 2022 missile tests. If the administration does not change course, it is likely just a matter of time until Pyongyang resumes testing both ICBMs and nuclear weapons. In early February, China’s ambassador to the United Nations emphasized that the United States needs to come up with “more attractive and more practical” policies and actions to reduce tensions with North Korea and avoid a return to a “vicious circle” of confrontation, condemnation and sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile program. 

China has every reason to be frustrated with Washington’s behavior. The Biden foreign policy team seems to be caught in a time warp. Although Trump’s initiatives appeared to reflect Beijing’s long-standing advice for greater policy realism and flexibility, Washington now embraces the status quo ante. Instead of persisting in the fruitless demand for Pyongyang to return to a non-nuclear status, U.S. leaders should seek ways to establish a normal bilateral relationship on multiple fronts. That means easing and eventually eliminating the vast array of economic sanctions that have been imposed over the decades. It also means negotiating a treaty formally ending the Korean War and establishing full diplomatic relations between the two countries. 

However, instead of adopting a more creative and attainable policy, the Biden administration clings to an outmoded, unrealistic approach. It has not even fully supported South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to ease tensions between the two Koreas, despite reports that Seoul and Washington have agreed on a draft declaration proclaiming an end to the Korean War. At best, the Biden administration has grudgingly tolerated Moon’s conciliatory policies toward Pyongyang. The continued sterility of Washington’s approach to North Korea poses a major problem for China and all other countries in the region, since their exposure to potentially disastrous results if another crisis erupts on the Peninsula is the greatest. Beijing should lead a regional campaign to press the Biden administration to revive and intensify the Trump-era effort to achieve a rapprochement between the United States and North Korea.


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