Signs are emerging that the U.S. and North Korea are once again engaging in a delicate diplomatic dance over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
U.S. President Joe Biden has hosted talks to discuss the issue with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, his team has concluded a review of Washington’s North Korea strategy and Pyongyang has — sticking to a well-worn script — lashed out.
But beyond the new U.S. strategy’s broad outlines — it aims for a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” toward the North’s eventual denuclearizaton — it’s unclear if the policy will be a significant departure from that of previous administrations.
The Biden administration has said it will maintain an ultimate goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while exploring diplomacy with Pyongyang. It has also said that the U.S. is willing to take “pragmatic steps to reduce tensions” and that diplomacy would be based on previous U.S.-North Korea agreements such as the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement signed by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Pointedly, however, the White House has maintained that it will not “rely on strategic patience” for dealing with the North, a reference to former President Barack Obama’s policy, which took a wait-and-see approach that ultimately left Pyongyang free to its bolster its nuclear arsenal. At the same time, it has poured cold water on the prospects of the “grand bargain” attempted by Trump — which Biden has repeatedly criticized.
Still, Biden said Friday that he would be willing to meet Kim if the North Korean leader agrees to discuss denuclearization and that lower-level officials meet their counterparts in Pyongyang beforehand to lay the groundwork for a summit. The remarks appeared to signal a shift in his thinking from March, when the White House said Biden had no intention of meeting Kim.
But a number of experts say that Biden’s way of dealing with the seemingly intractable issue appears far from new. His administration continues to view North Korea as a bad actor that needs to be contained and deterred rather than as a mutual partner, while also focusing on things the U.S. wants, like denuclearization, rather than on things that North Korea wants, like new relations, normalization and sanctions relief.
“This thinking, which is also endemic on the North Korean side, leads to a cautious and risk-averse approach that prioritizes maximizing leverage before negotiations begin,” said Frank Aum, an expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace.
The problem, he said, is that this usually means a crisis is required before talks can begin.
Strategic patience redux?
In the run-up to the conclusion of Biden’s monthslong North Korea policy review, one of the top concerns among some former officials and observers had been that, after the fanfare and failure of Trump’s three meetings with Kim, the U.S. would revert to a more standoffish and hands-off approach akin to strategic patience.
Such concerns have grown as the Biden administration makes its showdown with China a central focus of its foreign policy and as Iran’s own nuclear objectives and crises in the Middle East continue to loom large.
The White House also raised eyebrows after apparently backtracking on naming an envoy to handle North Korean issues, tapping Sung Kim, a seasoned diplomat who had formerly held the post during the strategic patience era.
But the clearest indication that the U.S. may be headed down a familiar path came earlier this month, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking after details of the policy review emerged, put the onus on Pyongyang to take the next step in the diplomatic dance.
“We’ll look to see not only what North Korea says but what it actually does,” Blinken said. “It is, I think, up to North Korea to decide whether it wants to engage or not.”
His remarks came a day after the North lashed out at the Biden administration, saying that recent comments out of Washington were proof of a “hostile policy” that required a “corresponding response.”
While the strategy of putting the ball in North Korea’s court may have worked in the past, time is no longer on the United States’ side as Pyongyang continues to refine its nuclear and missile programs, threatening the stability of Northeast Asia and beyond.
At a rare Workers’ Party Congress in January, Kim unveiled a wish list of advanced new weaponry, including smaller and lower-yield nuclear weapons and longer-range solid-fuel missiles, some of which he said were already in development or bound for testing.
“Waiting for North Korea to ‘go first’ is a misreading of the situation,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and author of a book on Kim’s nuclear program.
“North Korea has what we don’t want them to have; they see us as an enemy, and their nukes ensure we can’t do much to them other than sanctions, same as ever,” he said. “So waiting on North Korea is de facto strategic patience. And everybody knows strategic patience was a disaster.”
Although the Biden team has not publicly said it is open to a “step-by-step” approach to nuclear negotiations, leaks to the media have said the administration is seeking interim “way stations” in talks, such as halting weapons proliferation and checking the development of new delivery systems.
The administration has appeared reluctant to apply the step-by-step label, likely because of past precedent, where the North reaped the benefits of initial moves — such as the dramatic 2008 destruction of a cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex — but refused further steps toward denuclearization.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has come the closest to publicly endorsing the phased approach as part of a roadmap to denuclearization.
“We’re prepared to engage in diplomacy towards that ultimate objective, but work on practical measures that can help us make progress along the way,” he said earlier this month.
Experts say there are strong arguments for proceeding step by step, especially compared with the likelihood of failure in attempting to compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal, but that it makes sense to keep such an approach quiet initially.
“If the administration gains diplomatic traction with the North, it will eventually have to make a persuasive public case for the step-by-step approach,” Robert Einhorn, a former senior State Department official who once negotiated with North Korean officials, wrote in an analysis for the Brookings Institution think tank. “But it probably sees little value in detailing and defending such an approach now, before diplomatic engagement has even begun.”
Exactly how the Kim regime will react to the U.S. openness to a phased approach remains to be seen, though Sullivan’s remarks describing a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” could strike Pyongyang as similar to language it used in 2018 to illustrate its own ideas about talks.
Pyongyang has reportedly responded to a U.S. offer for a briefing on the new U.S. policy, though details beyond that are not known. When the United States first sounded out North Korea in February about possible contact, it did not respond.
Embracing the Singapore statement
The North could also see the Biden administration’s embrace of the Singapore declaration and other past agreements as a key factor in guiding its next steps.
The Singapore statement, a vague two-page declaration signed by Trump and Kim in June 2018 that called for the two sides to “work toward” the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and elevated crafting a “new” relationship to the same level as denuclearization, was lauded by the North Korean leader earlier this year.
Given Kim’s personal connection with the statement and the Biden team’s preference of working more closely with allies such as South Korea and Japan on the issue — both of which had urged the U.S. to recommit to the agreement — experts say it could be viewed as a launchpad for a return to diplomacy as well as a foundation to build on.
But much will hinge on how Kim interprets the Biden administration’s entreaties and if they include enough incentives — such as the prospect of eventual sanctions relief — to entice the North back to the negotiating table.
“The U.S. won’t pay Pyongyang to return to negotiations but is willing to offer humanitarian assistance,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
This type of aid could include COVID-19 vaccines, though Pyongyang has voiced skepticism over the shots, saying this month that they are “no universal panacea” for the pandemic, which represents a grave threat to the Kim dynasty. Considering the regime’s deep-seated paranoia, it’s also unclear if it would accept shots over fears of tampering and the belief that it can weather the coronavirus after surviving years of crushing sanctions.
The North has not officially confirmed any infections, though outbreaks are widely believed to have occurred despite the country’s ban on travel into and out of the country and its draconian antivirus measures.
The pandemic could also put a damper on hopes for a quick resumption of talks, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, the KF-VUB Korea chair at the Brussels School of Governance.
“Pyongyang continues to be terrified of COVID-19 spreading in the country, which would make any negotiations very difficult in the short-term,” he said. “So unless North Korea and the U.S. plus South Korea can find a solution … diplomacy will be on hold for a while.”
If Pyongyang does agree to working-level talks, the starting point of negotiations could be a formal freeze of testing and development of nuclear capabilities and delivery systems. Kim has abided by an informal moratorium on longer-range missile and nuclear testing, with the last tests coming in late 2017.
If, on the other hand, Kim shuns diplomacy and opts for provocative weapons tests, Washington will likely expand sanctions enforcement and military exercises with allies.
Biden warned of such an outcome after the North tested short-range missiles in March, playing down those launches as “business as usual,” but vowing unspecified “responses if they choose to escalate.”
In the near term, the best-case scenario appears to be if North Korea, intrigued by Washington’s reaffirmation of the Singapore statement and the White House’s more accommodating language, takes the U.S. up on its briefing offer, said the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Aum.
“The worst case would be that North Korea decides that there is nothing new in what the U.S. has stated, that the ‘hostile’ policy remains, that it doesn’t want to be slow-rolled by Biden’s preference for starting at working-level negotiations, and that it needs to restart its testing cycle to increase pressure on Washington.”
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