"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Biden and Moon Discuss North Korea

Arms Control NOW

U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to terminate U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines that capped Seoul’s missile development and announced the appointment of a career diplomat, Sung Kim, as the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, recently appointed as Special Envoy to North Korea by President Biden, arrives at the Ritz-Carlton hotel to meet with North Korean vice-foreign minister Choe Son Hui on June 11, 2018 in Singapore. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)While Biden did not provide new details about the results of his administration’s policy review toward North Korea, the two leaders reiterated the need for a calibrated, phased approach toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and stressed the importance of using dialogue and diplomacy toward North Korea in the news conference and the formal joint statement that followed their May 21 meeting.

Moon and Biden also pledged to strengthen bilateral relations, reaffirmed commitments to their combined defense posture under the U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, and committed to “maintaining an inclusive, free, and open Indo-Pacific” at Biden’s second in-person foreign leader visit.

The termination of the U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines now allows South Korea to develop and deploy ballistic missiles with unlimited ranges. Before the announcement, South Korea’s ballistic missiles were capped at 800 kilometers with an unlimited payload under an agreement in 2017 that revised previous restrictions.

Under the original 1979 agreement, the United States allowed the transfer of prescribed missile technologies to South Korea in return for Seoul capping its ballistic missile forces to a range of 150 kilometers and a payload of 500 kilograms. At the time of the signing, Washington had tactical nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea and was wary of Seoul developing its own nuclear weapons program. By limiting South Korea to missile systems below the nuclear-capable threshold, the United States sought to prevent proliferation. 

North Korea’s missile advancements, military conflicts with North Korea, and desire to advance Seoul’s space programs led to South Korea negotiating revisions to the guidelines four times: 2001, 2012, 2017, and 2020. As a result of these most recent revisions, South Korea no longer has any restrictions on its development and deployment of missile technology.

South Korea Prime Minister Chung Sye-Kyun tweeted May 21 that this move helps both “secure [South Korea’s] missile sovereignty in 42 years” and address the military balance in Northeast Asia.

While Spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense Boo Seung-Chan reported that Beijing had not raised any objections to the termination, China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated May 24 at his news conference that China notes concern with the U.S.-South Korea joint statement, and that “the development of [US-South Korea] relations should be conducive to regional peace, stability, development and prosperity, and should not harm the interests of a third party, including China” to a question about the missile guidelines termination.

North Korea has yet to respond to this development.

North Korea was priority issue for Moon heading into the summit with Biden, but the leaders offered no new details about the U.S. policy review for North Korea, which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed was completed April 30.

At the May 21 news conference Moon described the U.S. policy as “a very calibrated, practical, gradual, step-by-step manner, and very flexible” with the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as the ultimate objective. In an April New York Times interview, Moon argued that denuclearization is a “matter of survival” for South Korea.

Pyongyang allegedly “well received” the United States’ offer to explain the outcome of the policy review, according to Yonhap News Agency. This differs from an earlier rejection of engagement offers in February. But the two engagement efforts had slightly different intentions; while the policy explanation would set the stage for the forthcoming diplomacy with North Korea and could potentially provide Pyongyang with an offer to the diplomatic table, the February outreach sought merely to reduce risks of escalation and notify Pyongyang of the ongoing policy review.

Biden’s policy moves away from the Trump administration's grand bargain approach, which Pyongyang rejected in the 2019 Hanoi Summit, and from reliance on “strategic patience” which implicitly demanded that Pyongyang take steps toward denuclearziation as a precondition for diplomatic engagement with the United States. Biden seeks to build on past the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement, which calls to build a stable peace regime and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In a May 18 Yonhap News Agency interview, White House policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said that UN sanctions on North Korea will remain and continue to be enforced through diplomacy with the United Nations and neighboring countries. Nonetheless, The Washington Post reported April 30 that the United States is “prepared to offer relief for particular steps,” according to a U.S. official.

China and Russia, however, have pushed for North Korea sanctions relief at the UN since late 2019 as a means to advance diplomacy. 

The appointment of Sung Kim as Special Envoy to North Korea reflects Biden’s push for pragmatic, principled diplomacy with Pyongyang. Kim, a career diplomat with significant experience working on North Korea policy, served as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia until he was appointed as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in Jan. 2021. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 2011 to 2014, as Obama’s special envoy to multilateral six-party talks with North Korea.

Lijian reported China took note of the appointment and “supports dialogue and contact … [that address] the legitimate concerns of all parties in a balanced way. Relevant parties should follow the dual-track approach and the phased and synchronized principle to continuously advance the political settlement process of the Korean Peninsula issue.”—SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Fellow, JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

Pyongyang Stays Silent on Biden-Moon Summit

North Korea refrained from provocative statements and weapons tests during U.S. President Joe Biden’s summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in May 21. Leading up to the summit, some analysts predicted Pyongyang would seek to escalate tensions during the meeting where leaders discussed the Biden administration’s pragmatic new approach toward North Korea.

A man watches a television screen showing news footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending the 8th congress of the ruling Workers' Party held in Pyongyang, at a railway station in Seoul on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP via Getty Images)In one assessment, Park Young-ja, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, highlighted that “there is a growing need for North Korean authorities to put the blame on ongoing U.S. sanctions and the failure of South Korea’s promises,” indicating Pyongyang was likely to raise tensions, including by testing a ballistic missile, during the summit or upcoming military exercises.

But North Korea refrained, opting to remain silent as Biden met with Moon at the White House.

North Korea has conducted two rounds of missile tests during the Biden administration, both in March 2021. Leading up to the first test, North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui remarked that Pyongyang did not feel it had to respond to attempts by the United States to establish dialogue, naming these efforts a “delaying-time trick.” The second round of March tests, conducted just after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Tokyo and Seoul, was assessed as an overt signal from North Korea to the Biden administration of its intent to continue developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The United States and South Korea also held a scaled-down, computerized version of their annual military exercises in March, spurring hostility from Pyongyang.

There is growing evidence to suggest North Korea may soon test its new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), despite its inaction during the Biden-Moon summit. Pyongyang displayed a new model of its Pukguksong SLBM during its Jan. 14 military parade, and satellite imagery analysis from January 2021 indicates it is taking steps to orchestrate an underwater launch of a new, longer-range, solid-fueled ballistic missile. North Korea’s last SLBM test was in October 2019, of an earlier Pukguksong model.

Moon Commits to Ratify Panmunjom Declaration

South Korean President Moon Jae-in looks to formally establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and endeavors to support full denuclearization by North Korea, Seoul’s unification minister said May 20. To drive forward that mission, unification minister Lee In-young announced that the Moon Jae-in administration will call on the South Korean National Assembly to ratify the Panmunjom Declaration signed by Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018.

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in participate in a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on May 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. Moon Jae-in is the second world leader to be hosted by President Biden at the White House. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)The Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula commits, among other things, to “build a permanent and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” and to realize “through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.” Moon seeks ratification of the document by the National Assembly despite Pyongyang’s naming of the agreement as a “dead document.”

While Moon sought to codify the agreement several months after its conclusion in 2018, he was swiftly blocked by opposition parliamentary leaders. Lee said May 20 that the Moon administration “will take steps again at an appropriate time to obtain parliamentary approval,” which is required to move forward with ratifying the declaration.

Apart from peace and security on the Peninsula, Moon and his administration are firmly committed to advancing North Korean denuclearization. According to Lee, “the Panmunjom Declaration clearly states that the common goal of the two Koreas is the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and that “efforts to consolidate and institutionalize this will help reaffirm our will toward this goal… and contribute to the two Koreas and the U.S. working toward enhancing peace on the Korean Peninsula together.”

In an April interview with The New York Times, Moon urged the Biden administration to engage meaningfully with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program. Later, during his May 10 special address marking his fourth year in office, the South Korean president remarked that “if there is an opportunity to restart the clock of peace and advance the peace process on the Korean Peninsula,” he would do everything possible to achieve that goal. “I hope that we will be able to build peace and move toward prosperity together,” he said.

Moon also acknowledged the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review and endorsed the “flexible, gradual and practical approach” toward complete denuclearization” outlined in the administration’s review.

Congressional Language Sends the Wrong Signal to North Korea

Language on North Korea in the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act risks sending the wrong message to North Korea about U.S. policy goals. The language originated in  S. 1169, also known as the Strategic Competition Act (SCA), a bill introduced by U.S. Senators Jim Risch’s (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez’s (D-N.J.). That bill was incorporated into the broader U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which was introduced in the Senate May 18. The House version of the bill does not include the North Korea language.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks in Washington on Nov. 7, 2019. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)Section 3234 in the Senate bill is a statement of policy regarding the implementation of UN sanctions on North Korea. The text says it is the policy of the United States to sustain “maximum economic pressure on [North Korea] until [Pyongyang] undertakes complete, verifiable, and irreversible actions toward denuclearization,” (CVID), a policy that includes pressing states to enforce UN sanctions on North Korea.

While states are obligated to implement UN sanctions, sustaining sanctions pressure until CVID runs counter to President Joe Biden’s new North Korea policy, under which the United States will conduct pragmatic, principled diplomacy with North Korea. Complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains the goal, but the Biden administration aims to use an incremental approach toward that end, rather than demanding CVID.

Menendez’s language sends conflicting signals to regional East Asian states, including North Korea, about U.S. intentions, particularly when it comes to putting sanctions relief on the table as an early reciprocal action. Sending mixed signals could also hurt prospects for productive US-North Korea relations and denuclearization by signaling to Pyongyang that Biden does not have support in Congress and undermining U.S. credibility.

Further, maintaining maximum economic pressure, which entails no sanctions relief, until CIVD does not sit well with North Korea, and more importantly, it is unlikely to work. Choi Son Hui, the first vice minister of foreign affairs for North Korea, has argued that Pyongyang will counter the United States based on the “principle of power for power, goodwill for goodwill.”

This maximalist strategy also conflicts with Biden’s alleged plans for sanction relief. While the White House policy coordinator for Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell stated in a May 18 Yonhap News Agency interview UN sanctions will continue to be enforced through diplomacy, one U.S. official said that the United States is “prepared to offer relief for particular steps,” according to The Washington Post April 30.

In addition, China and Russia have both sought to provide UN sanction relief to North Korea since late 2019, although the United States largely stymied the efforts.

China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said May 3 that he hopes that the United States gives more importance to diplomacy and dialogue than “extreme pressure” on North Korea toward denuclearization. Both the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin's said May 6 in a news conference and Special Representative of the Chinese Government on the Korean Peninsula Affairs Liu Xiaoming tweeted May 7 that China supports a “dual-track approach” on achieving the denuclearization of and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula through a phased and synchronized approach.

South Korea Incoming Militarization

The United States and South Korea hold several joint military exercises each year, including large-scale biannual exercises around March and August. The Trump administration suspended a number of these exercises beginning in 2018; others have been modified due to the Covid-19 pandemic. How Biden uses this upcoming fall joint exercise will likely impact U.S. diplomacy with North Korea.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his granddaughter Finnegan Biden look through binoculars toward North Korea during a visit to observation post Ouellette at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on December 7, 2013 in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)Contingent on his confirmation, the nominee for the commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) General Paul LaCamera, who is the current commander of U.S. Army Pacific, stated at his May 18 U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing that he believes joint US-South Korea joint field exercises are “extremely important to build readiness,” and that live ones are better than virtual ones.

LaCamera affirmed the resumption of joint exercises if confirmed. He also acknowledged that trainings are sometimes used “in negotiations, or … [as] potential bargaining chips,” but his mission would be to reduce risks to the USFK.

The joint exercises will happen against the backdrop of South Korea’s changing military. Seoul has been investing and contributing more to its capabilities and its military balance with Washington, impacting regional military dynamics.

Seoul revealed in March its first next-generation supersonic fighter jet, KF-21 Boramae, which cost approximately $7.8 billion to develop. South Korea plans to deploy 40 KF-21s by 2028 and a full fleet of 120 aircraft by 2032, replacing the aging F-4E Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II Fighters.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in lauded this development, saying that it ushers in “a new era of self-reliant national defense” for South Korea.

Seoul has also recently procured 288 AGM-114R Hellfire missiles and related equipment for around $36 million from Washington in March. As these are a combat-tested tactical missile system that can be launched from multiple platforms, the advancement and proliferation of missile defense capabilities increase Seoul’s deterrence against Pyongyang’s expanding missile forces.

South Korea has also invested in technologies with indirect implications for defense against North Korea. In April, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense said that it would deploy an artificial intelligence-powered monitoring system along the demilitarized zone, following a slow and embarrassing apprehension of a North Korean who was crossing the border.

President Moon has consistently increased Seoul’s annual military spending by an average of seven percent, around three percent more than his predecessor. These increases have been in direct response to ongoing modernizations of North Korea’s strategic weapons, but they clash with Moon’s policy for diplomacy and inter-Korean peace.

Alongside the termination of US-South Korea missile guidelines that allow Seoul to develop its own ballistic missiles that can extend beyond 800 kilometers, South Korea agreed in March to a new six-year Special Measures Agreement (SMA) with the United States, which increased Seoul’s contribution by approximately 14 percent to the cost of stationing USFK.

Key Actors To Know

Sung Kim was named as U.S. Special Envoy to North Korea during the May 21 summit meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in. A career diplomat, Kim is also serving as acting Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He also has served in several roles closely tied to U.S. policy toward North Korea, including U.S. Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks from July 2008-Oct. 2011 and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from Nov. 2011-Oct. 2014.

During the Trump administration, Sung Kim served as U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and then, as Ambassador to Indonesia, beginning in October 2020. According to NK News, Kim will continue to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, while also undertaking the role of special envoy. 

While serving in the Philippines, Kim assisted with preparations for former U.S. President Donald Trump’s summits with Kim Jong Un. He led a delegation of officials to meet with North Korean officials led by Choe Son-Hui at Panmunjom in May 2018 ahead of the June 2018 Singapore Summit, the first meeting of Trump and Kim. He also accompanied former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang in July 2018 for a meeting with Kim Yong-chol, then vice-chair of the Workers Party of North Korea.

In naming Kim as Special Envoy during a May 21 news conference, Biden noted his “deep policy expertise.” Moon said he welcomed Sung Kim's appointment and said it “reflects the firm commitment of the U.S. for exploring diplomacy and its readiness for dialogue with North Korea.” Moon said he has “high expectations,” given Kim’s “high caliber” of expertise on the Korean Peninsula.

In a March 12 press briefing ahead of Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s trip to South Korea and Japan, Kim said one of the Biden administration’s goals is “to restore confidence, trust with our allies and partners” in the Indo-Pacifica region. In the same press briefing, he said the United States remained in close touch with Tokyo and Seoul during the North Korea policy review and on the Biden administration “wanted to make sure to incorporate their input.” He also said that the U.S. commitment to “seeking a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” has not changed.


April 8

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledges to wage another “Arduous March” to overcome his country’s hardships.

April 12

China selects Liu Xiaoming, a career diplomat, as Beijing’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs. In a tweet, he says that all relevant parties’ concerns should “be addressed in phased and synchronized steps.”

April 15

CSIS publishes satellite imagery that suggests that the Yongbyon Radiochemistry Laboratory, its associated thermal plant, and centrifuge plant have resumed operations since early March 2021.

April 16

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for his first in-person foreign leader visit. The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea at their news conference.

April 19

The G-7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group commits “to the goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation and dismantlement of all of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles in accordance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and call for the DPRK to return at an early date to the NPT and IAEA safeguards. We are deeply concerned that the DPRK continues to develop its illicit ballistic missile programme, to include testing a variety of short-range missiles. In this regard, we condemn the recent launches of ballistic missiles on 25 March 2021 in violation of the relevant UNSC resolutions.” It reiterates that North Korea will never be accepted as a nuclear power.

April 27

2018 Panmunjom Declaration anniversary takes place.

April 28

Biden says that “We are going to be working closely with our allies to address the threats posed by [North Korea and Iran] through diplomacy as well as stern deterrence” in his 100 days address.

April 30

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirms completion of Biden’s North Korea Policy Review that calls for a calibrated, pragmatic phased approach toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, thereby moving away from Trump’s “grand bargain” approach and Obama’s “strategic patience.”

May 2

North Korean Foreign Ministry Director-General of Department of U.S. Affairs Kwon Jong Gun says that Biden’s April 28 speech “reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward” North Korea.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says in an ABC News interview that “[US] policy toward North Korea is not aimed at hostility. It’s aimed at solutions.”

May 3

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shares the North Korean Policy Review with South Korea Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong, who welcomes “the fact that result of the review was decided in a realistic, practical direction.”

May 10

South Korea President Moon Jae-In welcomes “the direction of the Biden Administration's North Korea policy that aims to achieve the primary goal of the Korean Peninsula's complete denuclearization through diplomacy with a flexible, gradual and practical approach by building upon the foundation of the Singapore Declaration” in his fourth-year inaugural address.

May 12

U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs David Helvey meets with South Korean Deputy Minister of Defense Kim Man-Ki May 12 and May 13, as part of the Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD).

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines arrives in South Korea after a trilateral meeting with Hiroaki Takizawa, Japan’s cabinet intelligence director, and Park Jie-won, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director, according to Yonhap News Agency.

May 21

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts South Korean President Moon Jae-In for his second in-person foreign leader visit. They announce the termination of bilateral missile guidelines, appointment of Sung Kim as U.S. Special Envoy to North Korea, $25 billion investment by South Korean companies to the United States, and pledge to use dialogue and diplomacy on North Korea.