The Biden administration has just rolled out the results of its North Korea strategy review, which is meant to chart a path forward to solve one of the thorniest and most dangerous national security problems in the world. But now that the review is complete, the administration’s plan is essentially to wait for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to make the next positive move, which doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. To some, that sounds like a return to the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” — just without saying as much.

In his speech to the nation last week, President Biden said both North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs “present serious threats to American security and the security of the world,” and he pledged to work with allies to tackle both. But in its first 100 days, the Biden administration has devoted enormous diplomatic resources and capital to re-engaging with Iran. In contrast, North Korea-related diplomacy has focused mostly on consulting with allies such as Japan and South Korea. The Biden team quietly reached out to Pyongyang in February but got no response. Nor has the Kim regime responded to a second attempt by Team Biden to convey the results of this now-completed review, two senior administration officials told me.

The review concluded, according to my colleagues at The Post, that U.S. policy will be to “pursue a phased agreement that leads to full denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula — in other words, to seek incremental, small deals rather than an all-or-nothing agreement. White House press secretary Jen Psaki emphasized that the Biden approach to North Korea “will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience.”

The Biden administration’s political calculation seems reasonable enough. Consulting with allies, setting limited goals and leaving the door open for diplomacy all make sense. But there’s concern among some officials, experts and diplomats that, absent any active plan to kick-start the diplomacy, the Biden team is essentially slipping into a familiar pattern of looking busy while tacitly endorsing the status quo.

The impression that North Korea ranks low on the list of Biden’s priorities is confirmed by the fact that the White House has decided not to appoint — for now — an official specifically entrusted with the issue. A senior administration official confirmed to me that there is currently no plan to fill the role of special representative for North Korea at the State Department, which was held by then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun until January. The State Department will appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights, the official said, because that is required by law. But until there’s a dialogue with Pyongyang, there’s no need to designate a lead official for such negotiations, the official argued.

“We don’t need to have one person who is the designated person in charge right now,” the official said. “I think the fact that we’ve gotten this review done, that we’ve got this rolled out, that we are engaging on this, means that things are working pretty well.”

Not everyone agrees. Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, told me that the Biden administration’s failure to name a top official for North Korea actually hurts its chances of reaching a successful negotiation with Pyongyang or making progress toward meeting U.S. objectives.

“It’s really unfortunate if they don’t appoint a special representative,” she said. “They do need to make clear who is charge of North Korea policy, because right now it’s not just unclear to us, but to the North Koreans as well.”

Pyongyang’s belligerent and dismissive response to Biden’s comments should tell us that the North Koreans are not going to come back to the table absent some new action or offer from Washington beyond just a willingness to talk, said Town. Add to that Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s public message that the United States is waiting for North Korea to decide whether to engage, and it amounts to a stalemate.

“The administration can say on paper that it’s not strategic patience, but if you are waiting for the North Koreans to make the first move, then it’s essentially strategic patience,” she said.

Regardless of what you call it, the problem with the wait-and-see approach is that the status quo is unsustainable. North Korea continues to move ahead with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. That means the threat is rising. It also means the terms of any negotiation or deal are getting worse for Washington, as Kim accumulates more and more leverage.

U.S. options vis-a-vis North Korea, as is often noted, are all bad. There’s little chance of returning to the previous administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” because there’s no international consensus for new sanctions. Convincing Kim to come back to the table could require concessions that come with a political cost. Even if the negotiations begin, that means years of difficult, high-risk, low-reward diplomacy.

It’s clear that the Biden administration has several foreign policy priorities, and that spending time, resources and political capital on the North Korea issue isn’t one of them. Trump failed on North Korea, but at least he tried. The Biden team is going to have to try harder, and they would be better off doing that sooner rather than later.

Read more: