Before leaving office, Obama told Trump that North Korea was the most urgent national security issue. Trump actually listened, proceeding to launch the highest-level diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang in history — which failed for a variety of reasons. Then, the coronavirus pandemic froze the issue in place. Now, as the freeze begins to thaw, Obama’s national security officials are back in power. But they inherit a North Korea problem more difficult than when they last saw it.
“North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs grew over the last four years,” a senior administration official told me. “The regime and its arsenal became an even greater threat.”
The administration’s ongoing North Korea policy review could easily stretch into the summer. There has been no official contact between the Biden administration and the regime of Kim Jong Un, according to the official, and little substantive communication on the issue with Beijing.
“At some point, we will need to engage the Chinese on this, but right now we are focused on allies and partners,” the official said.
North Korea-watchers on both sides of the Pacific are wondering who will get the job of special representative for North Korea policy, which is vacant. Sung Kim, the acting head of the State Department’s Asia bureau, led a trilateral meeting with senior Japanese and South Korean diplomats last week. Kim could be chosen for the special representative post, which he previously held, or could be picked to run the bureau permanently, or both.
Deputy Secretary of State nominee Wendy Sherman previously served as the State Department’s top North Korea official. If confirmed, she could wear both hats, as Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun did at the end of the Trump administration. The State Department also plans to fill the post of North Korean human rights envoy, which was discarded during the Trump administration, the official said.
Once everyone finds their seats, they’ll need a policy to implement. The Stimson Center’s 38 North program has released a working group report recommending that Biden engage in active diplomacy with Pyongyang to achieve small gains that mitigate the security threat. Arguing that the goal of complete denuclearization is “unachievable,” the groups says Washington should be prepared to offer reciprocal concessions for incremental progress, including limited sanctions relief as a conditional and reversible incentive.
If the Biden team doesn’t make the first move, it risks being accused of returning to Obama’s pattern of “strategic patience,” waiting for Kim Jong Un to come crawling. But the record shows that North Korea is more likely to buck than buckle, and a long silence from Washington could be broken by the loud boom from a new nuclear test. That would set off a familiar escalatory cycle that could make real progress unattainable.
“The pressure strategy alone is not enough and it cannot solve the problem,” said Jungsup Kim, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute. “We are not in a position to ignore North Korea, even if it cannot be trusted. Every day, the North Korean nuclear capability is advancing.”
The elephant in the room is China. Beijing is not likely to help the United States increase pressure on North Korea, as it did in 2017. Linking North Korea diplomacy to the U.S.-China relationship didn’t work in the Trump administration, and U.S.-China relations aren’t likely getting better soon.
There’s time pressure coming from Seoul as well. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is approaching the end of his term, and North Korean peace is his supposed legacy. Moon’s political urgency is in direct conflict with Biden’s deliberative process.
“President Moon wants the Biden administration to be reminded that strategic patience is no longer possible,” said Jihwan Hwang, professor at the University of Seoul.
The Biden team need not abandon all of Trump’s work. The 2018 statement Trump and Kim Jong Un signed at their Singapore Summit can be salvaged as a framework for new discussions, the 38 North report argues. Kim’s personal engagement in the diplomatic process is positive. He seems restrained for now and is even publicly acknowledging his country’s dire economic situation, indicating he is motivated to improve the lives of his people.
The Biden team must not give up on denuclearizing North Korea or stopping the atrocities there, but meanwhile must do everything possible to keep the threat to Americans and allies from growing even worse. That means committing to politically sensitive, difficult, high-risk, low-reward diplomacy, to lessen the danger for all — the sooner the better.