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Biden’s North Korea Policy Needs Rebooting

A series of missile tests make it plain that carrots don’t work without sticks.

By , a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and , a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A man walks past a television screen broadcasting footage of a North Korean missile test at a railway station in Seoul on Jan. 14.
A man walks past a television screen broadcasting footage of a North Korean missile test at a railway station in Seoul on Jan. 14.
A man walks past a television screen broadcasting footage of a North Korean missile test at a railway station in Seoul on Jan. 14. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea fired two suspected ballistic missiles on Jan. 17, marking its fourth missile test this month and its seventh since September 2021. This spate of tests provides the final word on U.S. President Joe Biden’s engagement-only policy toward Pyongyang: It’s not working. While the administration has belatedly begun to tighten sanctions in response to the tests, Biden should get back on track by aggressively enforcing congressionally mandated sanctions against North Korea.

Upon concluding its North Korea policy review in April 2021, the Biden administration announced it would pursue a middle ground between the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” (diplomatese for doing nothing) and the Trump administration’s combination of “maximum pressure” and personal engagement with dictator Kim Jong Un. That month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden seeks a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK” and has reached out to Pyongyang both publicly and privately to offer talks. The United States reduced its economic pressure on North Korea as well. Kim, however, rejected the administration’s overtures and friendly gestures. Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs march ahead, putting Washington and its East Asian allies in a worse position than before Biden took office.

With the administration distracted by other foreign-policy priorities—not least Russia’s preparations for war against Ukraine—North Korea has received little attention. The November 2021 readout of a virtual meeting between Biden and China’s Xi Jinping mentioned North Korea in a single short sentence, where it was lumped together with other “regional challenges” like Afghanistan and Iran.

North Korea fired two suspected ballistic missiles on Jan. 17, marking its fourth missile test this month and its seventh since September 2021. This spate of tests provides the final word on U.S. President Joe Biden’s engagement-only policy toward Pyongyang: It’s not working. While the administration has belatedly begun to tighten sanctions in response to the tests, Biden should get back on track by aggressively enforcing congressionally mandated sanctions against North Korea.

Upon concluding its North Korea policy review in April 2021, the Biden administration announced it would pursue a middle ground between the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” (diplomatese for doing nothing) and the Trump administration’s combination of “maximum pressure” and personal engagement with dictator Kim Jong Un. That month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden seeks a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK” and has reached out to Pyongyang both publicly and privately to offer talks. The United States reduced its economic pressure on North Korea as well. Kim, however, rejected the administration’s overtures and friendly gestures. Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs march ahead, putting Washington and its East Asian allies in a worse position than before Biden took office.

With the administration distracted by other foreign-policy priorities—not least Russia’s preparations for war against Ukraine—North Korea has received little attention. The November 2021 readout of a virtual meeting between Biden and China’s Xi Jinping mentioned North Korea in a single short sentence, where it was lumped together with other “regional challenges” like Afghanistan and Iran.

This inattention has allowed the strict U.S. and United Nations sanctions imposed against North Korea since 2016 to atrophy. If not continually updated and enforced, sanctions are circumvented and lose their effectiveness. With such pressure lacking since Biden took office, the Kim regime has capitalized through a range of operations to evade sanctions, including covert ship-to-ship transfers to veil fuel imports and the use of front or shell companies and covert agents to access the international financial system.

Only a policy that convinces Kim that his nuclear program puts his regime itself at risk has the potential to bear fruit.

The Biden administration did not issue its first sanctions package against North Korea until Dec. 10, 2021, almost a year after taking office. Those sanctions rightly highlighted Pyongyang’s deplorable human rights record, including the mistreatment of Otto Warmbier, an American who was arbitrarily detained in North Korea in 2016 and died shortly after he was released. Yet the U.S. Treasury Department conspicuously failed to designate any of the financial institutions, particularly in China and Southeast Asia, aiding the North Korean regime, as mandated by the U.S. Congress since 2019. A separate U.S. sanctions package issued on Jan. 12 similarly failed to pack a significant punch.

Meanwhile, the Kim regime continues to advance its missile and nuclear capabilities, including intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental United States. Yet the Biden administration has done little in response. After North Korea resumed missile testing this past September following a six-month hiatus, the administration for months failed to issue sanctions over Pyongyang’s missile tests, each of which violated multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, as the administration has acknowledged. Kim probably interpreted this soft U.S. stance as an indication that Biden would tolerate further testing.

Following last week’s missile test, for example, the administration was able to convince fewer than half the 15 countries currently represented on U.N. Security Council to support a strongly worded statement condemning the launch. While inevitable Russian and Chinese vetoes precluded a statement issued by the U.N. Security Council, the administration failed to convince India, Mexico, or Norway to join in condemning the Kim regime.

That Biden’s engagement-only policy has failed should come as no surprise. Each of Biden’s four most recent predecessors also tried and failed to convince Kim and his father before him to denuclearize. Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary and CIA director during the Obama administration, urged Biden to not take a status quo approach to North Korea and noted Kim only responds to strength. Only a policy that convinces Kim that his nuclear program puts his regime itself at risk has the potential to bear fruit. Along with stronger diplomatic, military, cybersecurity, and informational efforts, accomplishing this will require sustained economic pressure.

To that end, the Biden administration needs to get serious about enforcing sanctions. Bipartisan majorities in Congress, working closely with both the Obama and Trump administrations, overwhelmingly passed mandatory North Korea sanctions in 2016, 2017, and 2019.

Those laws provide the administration with both a clear mandate and powerful tools to turn the screws on Kim and force him to return to the negotiating table. The administration should crack down on North Korea’s financial networks under the 2019 Otto Warmbier Act, including the financial institutions facilitating Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion. The administration should also better implement the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which requires the U.S. government to impose restrictions on the shipping registries of countries that violate many U.S. or U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

Finally, the administration should rigorously enforce the panoply of mandatory sanctions contained in the 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. That law requires sanctions for activities ranging from the purchase of North Korean minerals or seafood to the provision of jet fuel and luxury goods to the Kim regime. Proper sanctions enforcement will require a sustained effort to sanction anyone helping North Korea’s prohibited activities, including individuals and entities in China and Russia that enable Beijing and Moscow to ignore the U.N. sanctions they voted for.

Congress still has a role to play, too. Ensuring the Biden administration implements North Korea sanctions will require rigorous, bipartisan oversight from both houses of Congress. As a first step, the leaders of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees should hold hearings on the administration’s policy. The Biden administration, in turn, should proactively engage with lawmakers from both parties to chart a new, bipartisan North Korea policy.

While Biden has a full foreign-policy plate, the fact remains that the Kim regime poses a serious threat to the United States and its allies. Ignoring this threat will only make it grow.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration. Twitter: @NatSecAnthony

Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @MatthewZweig1

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