As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently traveled to Tokyo and Seoul to meet their Japanese and South Korean colleagues, how to manage China was the prime topic of discussion. But hovering in the background as always was North Korea and its nuclear program, a generations-long problem that has eluded multiple U.S. administrations going back to the George H.W. Bush era.
Thus far, U.S. President Joe Biden has provided little information about what his North Korea policy will consist of. This is not entirely unexpected; the administration is still in the middle of an inter-agency policy review, which could be wrapped up by next month. But if the remarks and statements from senior administration officials are a clue about where the policy may be going, we should all anticipate another four years of muddling through.
The Biden administration, like the Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations before it, remains focused on the foreign policy equivalent of winning the multi-million-dollar jackpot: North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. They’ve gotten the cold-shoulder and a rhetorical fusillade from the North in response.
Nearly 15 years since North Korea’s first underground nuclear test, eliminating its entire nuclear weapons stockpile is about as grandiose and unrealistic as it gets. What the Biden administration needs is the exact opposite of grandiose. To use a cliche, the United States needs to approach North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Rather than striving for a denuclearized North Korea that is highly unlikely to come, Biden should focus first and foremost on simply maintaining U.S. deterrence, which continues to be effective. Beyond that, freezing the country’s current arsenal, institutionalizing military-to-military communication to introduce a degree of stability in the U.S.-North Korea relationship and moving toward a gradual normalization of ties are more realistic goals than denuclearization.
For many in Washington, such a shift in priorities would be shocking. The denuclearization of North Korea has been ingrained in the heart of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since the North Korean nuclear program became an issue. There remains a strong belief that Kim Jong Un’s regime, due to its brutal, inhumane and perplexing nature, simply can’t be trusted with the world’s deadliest weapons. Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster went as far as to say that deterrence theory, the notion that a nation will refrain from aggression for fear of the inevitable consequences, didn’t apply to the North.
History, of course, makes the opposite case. While it would be preferable if Pyongyang was nuclear-free, the reality is North Korea has been a nuclear weapons state (albeit an unrecognized one by the international community) at least since October 2006, when Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, authorized the country’s first underground nuclear test.
In the decade and a half since, the United States, unrivaled in its military power, has been able to deter the North Koreans from doing anything reckless with those weapons. The leadership in Pyongyang may talk a big game, saber rattle with comically over-the-top statements and make a show about unveiling large, 11-axle missile launchers during military parades, but they aren’t stupid enough to use them.
For Pyongyang, a nuclear deterrent is inextricably linked to the regime’s survival. Despite confronting one of the strongest economic sanctions regimes in history, the Kim regime has gone to great lengths building and improving this deterrent. The equation is relatively straightforward: the benefits of nuclear weapons, the ultimate security guarantee, outweigh the costs of economic restrictions and pariah status.
While Kim is highly unlikely to trade away his entire nuclear deterrent for economic and political concessions, he may be open to talking about some limitations on his arsenal if Washington is willing to put sanctions relief and diplomatic normalization on the table. Kim, after all, was reportedly willing to mothball Yongbyon, the North’s largest nuclear complex, if the Trump administration reciprocated by lifting the most severe U.S. sanctions on the North Korean economy. Trump turned down this proposition, choosing instead to hand a note to Kim demanding the total surrender of the North’s nuclear weapons.
But it is not altogether ludicrous to imagine Kim and his negotiators entertaining the proposal again if the Biden administration was open to discussing it. A lifting of U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions in exchange for strict, impartial monitoring of the North’s nuclear facilities and a verified freeze on warhead and long-range missile production is likely the best Washington can do at this late stage in the game. It is certainly better than the alternative, which is more of the same.
Any nuclear agreement with North Korea at this point is merely a theoretical construct. None of us can say with the utmost confidence that more pragmatic aims on the part of the U.S. will be the key that unlocks the door to success. It is just as feasible to envision Kim rejecting Washington’s offer or responding with his own set of excessive demands.
However, what we can say with a high degree of confidence is that continuing the old, unoriginal U.S. policy on North Korea will extract the same dour results. If the Biden administration wants to demonstrate more success on this issue than its predecessors, it must be brave enough to replace tired orthodoxy with bold, new, and sensible approaches.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
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