By Jenny Town
As President Barack Obama was ending his term, he warned President Donald Trump that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions would be his top national security challenge, one that had eluded a sustainable solution under previous administrations. At the time, Pyongyang had already stepped up efforts to develop more diverse, longer-range ballistic missile systems and higher-yield nuclear weapons. Whether Trump wanted to heed Obama’s warning or not, North Korea quickly forced its way to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda by demonstrating preliminary intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and hydrogen bomb capabilities.
Although Trump’s unconventional approach to North Korea—from “fire and fury” to summit-driven diplomacy—got him enormous publicity, it failed to bring about substantive and sustainable changes in bilateral relations.
Nevertheless, as part of the diplomatic process, North Korea declared a moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile flight testing, which helped alleviate the escalating tensions of 2016 and 2017. At the first summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Singapore in 2018, the leaders committed to a common agenda for negotiations, including working toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, that could serve as the basis for future negotiations.
The Biden administration so far has had the luxury of relative calm on the Korean peninsula. Despite stalled relations with the United States, North Korea has upheld the testing moratoriums, whether by choice or by circumstance, keeping tensions low and the door to reviving diplomacy still cracked open. Meanwhile, the once rapidly progressing inter-Korean reconciliation process has come to a standstill, with South Korea no longer driving an ambitious push for peace and economic cooperation.
This lull created space and time for the Biden administration to conduct its North Korea policy review in close consultation with its key allies. Yet, reception of the new policy, despite allied endorsement of it, offers only cautious optimism that the negotiation process under President Joe Biden could be more productive and little clarity about how to get there.
Biden’s New Policy
The general principles of Biden’s new policy are not that different from past administrations.1 Although the expectations may be more realistic about the pacing of negotiations—expecting less up front and willing to work up toward bigger commitments—the principles are essentially the same: denuclearization as the focus, continued sanctions pressure in the meantime, and a negotiating strategy that requires North Korea to move first. This affords Pyongyang the agency to drive the process with silence, as demonstrated in recent weeks, or future positive or negative actions that force the United States to react. Given North Korea’s track record, a negative forcing event is more likely, putting Washington and its allies at a disadvantage from the start.
Because of the planned advancements in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that North Korea spelled out at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January, it is not difficult to imagine activities in which Pyongyang could engage that would again raise tensions.2 That includes further testing of solid-fueled missiles of varying ranges to improve performance and accuracy, as well as satellite launches and eventually, further nuclear weapons tests. The biggest challenge facing the administration now is how to get North Korea to reengage in negotiations without going down that route.
Pyongyang has been largely unresponsive to, or dismissive of, Seoul and Washington for months despite efforts to reopen communication channels. North Korea has had little to say since the new policy was announced, likely in part due to a preoccupation with its own domestic affairs, a flurry of party meetings, and efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
There was only a short Foreign Ministry rebuttal to Biden’s characterization of North Korea as a “serious threat to American security and the security of the world” in his April 29 speech to Congress and a mild clap back to U.S. criticisms on North Korea’s human rights record.3
Although both North Korean statements were relatively low-level, they reflected a perception that the new U.S. administration was set on maintaining a “hostile policy” against North Korea. As a result, despite talk about a more “calibrated” U.S. strategy, North Korea is unlikely to be convinced that engaging this administration will bring about different results.
For instance, Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in a joint statement after their White House summit in May, reaffirmed “a common belief that diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and [U.S.-North Korean] commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, are essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”4 The administration’s public messaging about the new policy, however, has focused only on the goal of denuclearization and the threat posed by North Korea, coupled with a renewed emphasis on North Korea’s human rights record.
Although denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is one pillar of the agenda in the Singapore statement, it is not the only one. The other pillars—building a new relationship between the United States and North Korea and a sustainable peace regime—were meant to be equal priorities to simultaneously address the underlying political and security challenges that Pyongyang uses to justify its nuclear deterrent. These were not issues to be addressed only after denuclearization is achieved, so the North Koreans may see the Singapore statement as void if the United States continues to focus only on denuclearization as the goal of negotiations.
The administration’s handling of the appointment of a special representative for North Korea policy has raised questions about how serious it is regarding North Korea and the priority the North plays in the broader national security landscape. When the policy was rolled out, there were indications the envoy position would not be filled in the short term because there were no negotiations taking place.5 That signaled a passive approach, essentially waiting for Pyongyang to act first before spending too much energy on the situation.
It also left big questions as to who inside government, if anyone, is leading the policy and whether North Korea could be set aside in deference to other priorities, such as the growing U.S.-Chinese rivalry.
Even after the surprise appointment of Kim, a veteran diplomat, to the special representative position at the Biden-Moon summit, subsequent administration clarification that the position would only be part-time and that Kim would continue to serve as ambassador to Indonesia, based out of Jakarta instead of Washington, did not inspire confidence that the administration was not simply still waiting to see what Pyongyang does.
North Korea’s Likely Response
The administration’s emphasis on denuclearization as a goal while maintaining all the traditional hardline parts of U.S. policy—deterrence, sanctions, and a renewed emphasis on human rights—will likely diminish any positive messages about the new policy.
At the same time, recent signals from Pyongyang have indicated no rush to reengage with the United States. Kim’s big gamble of summit diplomacy with Moon and Trump amounted to commitments on paper that went unfulfilled in practice, leaving him with few tangible benefits to show for his efforts. If a lesson was learned from that era, it was that high-level commitments by Washington and Seoul do not guarantee results, especially in the short term, and that there was no benefit to being the first mover.
The importance of that lesson should not be underestimated. At the party congress, in addition to issuing new goals for the WMD program, Kim seemed to indicate a reversal of thought when he suggested that improving the external security situation was a precondition for economic progress. Although it seems Kim had unrealistic expectations about how quickly relations with Washington and Seoul could change and have a positive impact on his country’s battered economy, this shift in calculus creates little urgency for further engagement with the United States and South Korea, when benefits likely will take years to materialize. Instead, economic plans laid out at the congress were premised on the need to improve internal structures and practices to build resiliency in a persistently hostile environment.6
Although Kim left the door to diplomacy open, he placed the onus on Washington and Seoul to make the first move and prove through actions that a different relationship and different outcomes were possible.
In this context, the message from Washington is not likely to compel the North Koreans to reengage soon. Although Pyongyang has not tested new strategic weapons in recent years, the lull should not be mistaken for complacency. A new larger ICBM and two new SLBMs were displayed during the last two military parades, and instructions to keep developing these capabilities have been clearly distributed to the relevant parties during the party congress.
Waiting for North Korea to make the first move on negotiations gives Pyongyang the power to set the terms and timing of engagement, including the possibility of raising the stakes to near fire-and-fury levels before coming back to the table. Meanwhile, it will continue to build up its nuclear arsenal to ensure that if it does choose to reengage, it does so from a position of strength.
Getting to the Table
The Biden administration may have more realistic expectations about how negotiations with North Korea should progress, seemingly willing to disaggregate what a deal may look like to create a process that builds trust and provides both sides with small, tangible wins along the way. The key challenge remains getting back to the table. That will be difficult without some clear demonstration that the administration can deliver the kind of results that past administrations could or would not.
One way of doing that is through unilateral measures, akin to what North Korea did in 2018 ahead of the Singapore summit when it released U.S. detainees, partially dismantled its nuclear test site, removed anti-U.S. propaganda from domestic consumption, and declared a moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile testing. Early signs from the administration make this option seem unlikely.
In lieu of unilateral actions, there are ways for the administration to try to engage the seemingly reluctant North Koreans, including modifying the negotiation process. Instead of starting over by asking for talks about principles and process, the administration could jump-start negotiations by putting forth an initial proposal.
If the policy is to pursue incremental steps, the administration could make clear in the proposal what it would like to see as a first step by the North Koreans and what the United States is offering as a reciprocal measure. That would give Pyongyang something concrete to respond to and demonstrate that an incremental, action-oriented, results-oriented process is possible.
Even if there is little appetite for a summit in the near future, high-level engagement can still be pursued outside of a summit format to keep the lines of communication open and convey a sense that the United States is serious about improving U.S.-North Korean relations. For instance, the administration could use the letters once passed between Trump and Kim in a more substantive way, by conveying principles, intentions, and opportunities, and providing a high-level endorsement for negotiations. Such letters could accommodate Kim’s interest in direct involvement in the process by serving as a mechanism for proposals to be conveyed to Kim and receiving his responses.
Finally, if the administration truly reaffirms the Singapore statement and the Panmunjom Declaration, then the messaging needs to be modified to reflect that. Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula should remain a goal of negotiations, as reflected in both documents, but it should not be the only goal. It is vital that the administration publicly address the prospects for peace and for building a different relationship for the mutual benefit of both countries.
Although there is widespread skepticism that North Korea will ever choose the path of denuclearization, the purpose of diplomacy is to bring them around to that decision. Convincing any country possessing nuclear weapons to voluntarily abandon them is a difficult proposition, especially when existential threats still exist. Biden’s “calibrated and practical approach” to North Korea is a step in the right direction but only if it recognizes that it also requires addressing Pyongyang’s threat perception.
2. “Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-Style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory on Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” KCNA Watch, January 9, 2021, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1610272851-580631610/great-programme-for-struggle-leading-korean-style-socialist-construction-to-fresh-victoryon-report-made-by-supreme-leader-kim-jong-un-at-eighth-congress-of-wpk/?t=1610568921077.
3. Statement of DPRK Foreign Ministry Director General of Department of U.S. Affairs, Korea Central News Agency, May 2, 2021; Statement of Spokesman for DPRK Foreign Ministry, Korea Central News Agency, May 2, 2021.
4. The White House, “U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement,” May 21, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/21/u-s-rok-leaders-joint-statement/.
6. Robert Carlin, “North Korea’s Eighth Workers’ Party Congress: Putting Things Into Context,” 38 North, January 19, 2021, https://www.38north.org/2021/01/north-koreas-eighth-workers-party-congress-putting-things-into-context/.