Report

Can Biden Solve the North Korea Puzzle?

Biden opened the door for talks with Kim Jong Un, but Pyongyang is playing hard to get.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a welcoming ceremony.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a welcoming ceremony before meeting then-U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 1, 2019. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

Five months into office, U.S. President Joe Biden has his hands full with foreign-policy crises. But there’s one conspicuously missing from the headlines: North Korea.

It’s only a matter of time before that changes, according to current and former U.S. officials and other experts. North Korea has a penchant for turning up the heat on Washington and its Asian allies through saber-rattling or provocative missile tests. Most analysts agree the next major North Korea crisis is a matter of when, not if.

Five months into office, U.S. President Joe Biden has his hands full with foreign-policy crises. But there’s one conspicuously missing from the headlines: North Korea.

It’s only a matter of time before that changes, according to current and former U.S. officials and other experts. North Korea has a penchant for turning up the heat on Washington and its Asian allies through saber-rattling or provocative missile tests. Most analysts agree the next major North Korea crisis is a matter of when, not if.

All the while, U.S. diplomacy toward North Korea seems to be stuck in the mud, with no clear opportunities on the horizon for Biden to curtail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program—a national security problem that has vexed many of his predecessors. Like them, Biden faces the same problem: how to convince the world’s most insular and recalcitrant regime to give up its nuclear weapons program when that regime appears to base its very survival on having the bomb. Former U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” and then engaged the regime in so-called “six-party talks” that ultimately foundered. Former U.S. President Barack Obama tried a strategy of “strategic patience”—sanctioning North Korea while holding out for talks and a possible easing of sanctions if it behaved better—to no avail. Former U.S. President Donald Trump tried personal diplomacy: high-profile summits, complete with flashy photo ops with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and follow-up “love letters.” That, too, failed to get North Korea to renounce its nuclear weapons program.

Top Biden administration officials have opened the door to talks in recent weeks, only to see those overtures slapped down by North Korean officials. That could leave the administration in limbo on North Korea as the hermit kingdom continues to make advances on its ballistic missile and nuclear program. In January, North Korea displayed a new submarine-launched ballistic missile during a military parade that showcased its rapidly advancing missile capabilities.

Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said he saw an “interesting signal” from Kim in a recent speech, where the North Korea leader said the country would prepare for both “dialogue and confrontation.” In a more direct overture to Pyongyang, Biden’s new special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, said the United States is willing to meet with North Korea “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions” during a visit to South Korea last week.

In a scornful and oblique statement, Kim Yo Jong, a senior North Korean official and sister of leader Kim Jong Un, seemed to dismiss the prospect of talks with the United States—at least for now. “It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself,” she said in a statement sent to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. “The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment.”

The U.S. State Department declined to comment, including regarding whether North Korea responded through formal channels to Sung Kim’s invitation to talk, instead referring the matter to the White House. A White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson said the administration is “under no illusions” about the challenges of diplomacy with North Korea. The spokesperson stressed that the administration’s goal remained the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, and diplomacy remains the best way to achieve that objective. “We will wait to see if comments from [North Korea] are followed up with any more direct communications about a potential path forward,” the spokesperson added.

Getting North Korea to the negotiating table is one matter, but making any progress on talks is an entirely different uphill battle. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the White House last month, Biden outlined the difficulties of diplomacy with North Korea. “We closely studied what others have tried and what worked and what hasn’t worked. And, you know, we’re under no illusions how difficult this is. None whatsoever,” Biden said. “The past four administrations have not achieved the objective. It’s an incredibly difficult objective.”

If North Korea changes its tune and signals a willingness to talk, there is another complicating factor at play: the pandemic. U.S. and South Korean officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, concede little is known about the spread of the coronavirus in North Korea, considered the most secretive and closed-off country in the world. “Because of a lot of unknowns of COVID in North Korea, the option for in-person meetings could be very limited,” said one South Korean official.

The administration in April announced it concluded a monthslong policy review on North Korea. It gave few details publicly on the review but said it would pursue “calibrated diplomacy” with North Korea.

Among the officials driving this policy are Sung Kim; Kurt Campbell, the NSC’s top official overseeing Indo-Pacific affairs; Edgard Kagan, another top NSC official for East Asia; and Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and expert on North Korea who joined the Biden administration as deputy assistant secretary of state. Biden’s pick to be his top diplomat on Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, is still awaiting Senate confirmation, and Biden has yet to name his ambassador to South Korea.

With diplomacy stalled, pressure has ramped up on the administration to toughen its military posture in the region. Trump froze large-scale military exercises with South Korea in 2018 to pave the way for diplomacy with Kim. The Biden administration has not yet indicated how it will move forward with major annual joint military exercises with South Korea this year, which usually take place in August.

“Military readiness is a top priority. Our combined military training events are a principal method of ensuring our combined Alliance readiness,” John Supple, a U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson said when approached for comment. “These training events are non-provocative, defensive in nature, and are intended to maintain alliance readiness to ensure we are ready to ‘fight tonight.’ Any decision on the scope, scale, and timing of exercises will be made bilaterally with these factors in mind.”

“We really need to beef up missile defense capabilities to keep pace with how quickly North Korea’s missile capability is improving and diversifying and expanding in terms of numbers and types of systems,” said Markus Garlauskas of the Atlantic Council and formerly a top U.S. intelligence analyst on North Korea at the National Intelligence Council. He said the United States should consider restarting large-scale military exercises and sending more missile radar and missile defense systems to the region.

“At the rate the North Korea threat is evolving, we not only have to get back to where we were, [but] we have to improve our posture to stay ahead.”

Foreign Policy reporter Jack Detsch contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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