The recognition that North Korean denuclearization is, for now, an unreachable goal comes as the Biden administration is swamped with other major foreign policy issues. Biden this week announced a quick withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, imposed tough new sanctions against Russia and began indirect nuclear talks with Iran.
North Korea has taken a back seat amid these other front-burner dilemmas. But the long-range danger posed by North Korea’s nuclear program is likely to be an important topic when Biden meets Friday with Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga.
The Suga visit is Biden’s first White House meeting with a foreign leader and a sign that, as the senior official put it, “We cannot be successful in Asia if the U.S.-Japan relationship is weak.” Biden hopes to establish rapport with a leader who, like him, served a long apprenticeship as the No. 2 official in his government and was widely underestimated politically.
Suga is bringing some welcome pledges to the meeting. He is expected to propose a $2 billion investment in 5G communications technologies that could provide an alternative to China’s Huawei, and he’ll offer what U.S. officials say is the most significant commitment on climate change yet by any U.S. ally.
Biden set the nonconfrontational tone on North Korea at his March 25 news conference, when he was asked about Pyongyang’s short-range missile tests the previous week. He said that the United States would respond “if they choose to escalate,” but that he was ready for “diplomacy . . . conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”
Biden’s stance, suggesting that denuclearization was an eventual goal, not an immediate one, was repeated in a joint U.S.-Japanese-South Korean statement on April 2, which called for progress “towards denuclearization.”
Kim basked in personal attention from Trump, and he undoubtedly hoped it would continue in a second term. But after Biden won in November, Pyongyang tried to maintain continuity. Kim announced in January that the fraternal, if hollow, Singapore statement should be the baseline for U.S.-North Korean relations.
Kim sent Biden a reminder of North Korea’s military strength with missile tests in late March, but even that message was restrained. The party newspaper carried the story on Page 2, with the front page displaying routine articles about city planning and transportation, according to Robert Carlin, a former intelligence analyst who is one of America’s top experts on North Korea. That was a “deliberate signal” of restraint, Carlin told me.
Carlin argues that the Biden administration needs to speak directly with North Korea, even if it recognizes that there’s little chance for any breakthrough in denuclearization. “We do need lines of communication opened up, we do need to be talking and listening to them on a regular basis,” he said.
The Biden administration has messaged North Korea that it is reviewing U.S. policy and that it “will be prepared to engage,” the senior official said. But Pyongyang hasn’t responded yet.
Biden’s approach to foreign policy seems to be solving one problem at a time. He decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, ending an almost 20-year headache at some risk to the homeland, but an enormous relief to a war-weary country. He’s begun addressing Iran, seeking a “compliance for compliance” deal that would reimpose limits on its nuclear program and ease U.S. sanctions. And he’s trying to balance penalties against Russia with diplomacy, through a proposed summit with President Vladimir Putin.
Lowering expectations on what’s achievable now with North Korea makes sense, but it’s not a policy. Biden needs a formula that balances competing interests — tough enough to bolster Japan, but not so aggressive that it frightens South Korea. Just matching Trump’s success in getting North Korea to stop its nuclear testing would be an achievement.
North Korea seems to be in the “too hard” folder for now. But one thing we’ve learned about Kim is that he doesn’t like to be ignored for long.