Member Briefings

A New Approach to the Forgotten Crisis

While America’s foreign policy establishment is focused on handling Russian aggression in Ukraine, another national security issue is slipping under the radar.  Over the past month, North Korea has restarted its missile tests, launching seven missiles.  The latest test was for a missile with a range capable of hitting Guam.  President Obama warned then President-Elect Trump in 2016 that North Korea would be his biggest national security challenge but Trump made little headway with the hermit-kingdom.  President Biden has a chance to reset North Korea policy but he should also build back better than what we had before.

North Korea poses a significant risk to America and our allies and partners in East Asia.  In July of 2021, Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “we cautiously estimate that North Korea might have produced sufficient fissile material to build 40 to 50 nuclear weapons and that it might possibly have assembled 10 to 20 warheads for delivery by medium-range ballistic missiles.”  Of course, having a nuclear warhead is just one step of the process.  Which is why they are continuing to test missiles.  If the warheads were effectively miniaturized and mated with the missile that they used in their last test,  South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines are all within range.  In 2017, the North Koreans tested the Hwasong-14 missile which has a large enough range to hit the United States as well as almost every other part of the globe.  They have also recently tested a hypersonic glide missile that would avoid American defenses.  While it remains unclear if the North Koreans can effectively put all the pieces together to hold the United States at risk, we should not wait to find out.

The Biden administration for its part is trying to break from the policies of previous administrations.  In its first year, the Biden administration underwent a North Korea policy review.  The new approach was described by Jen Psaki as “not focus[ing] on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience”.  While eschewing the policies of Trump and Obama, the Biden administration may nonetheless be pulled into the same trap.  After North Korea’s tests earlier in January, the Biden Administration has imposed sanctions against people and companies that are aiding North Korea’s quest for a nuclear weapon.  While no formal announcement has been made for a nomination of a U.S. ambassador to South Korea, it has been leaked to the South Koreans that President Biden plans to nominate Ambassador Philip Goldberg who previously worked on North Korean sanctions enforcement issues.  So while the “anywhere, anytime” offer of discussions remains on the table, this ambassadorial pick makes it clear that the Biden administration is going to be focused on tightening the screws on North Korea.  Regardless of the tagline for this policy, it roughly matches the outlines of America’s North Korea policy since the 1990s: economic sanctions as the stick and diplomacy as the carrot.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration is likely to have the same results as its predecessors.  In 1991, a national intelligence report argued that “economic sanctions per se would not cause North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.”  Little has changed since then. In 2017 Vladmir Putin made the observation that “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would have his people ‘eat grass’ before giving up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.” Right now, that might be the trade on the table.  After closing its border with China to protect against COVID, North Korea suffered a drought followed by a typhoon which caused a major hit to their agricultural capacity, leading to reports of starvation.  While the United States can continue to put pressure on the North Korean government, it is unlikely that it will fail because of its only ally, China.

China is concerned with a state collapse in North Korea because it would cause a massive flow of refugees across the border.  Along with the typical concerns that this would cause any country, the Chinese have also built an ethno-nationalist state for the Han Chinese which would have a hard time assimilating and caring for already deeply impoverished North Koreans forced from their country.  Additionally, as a recently released report from the U.S.-China economic and security review commission lays out, China is incredibly concerned that North Korea will warm up to the United States.  Their preferred outcome is for a quiet client state that keeps America far away from its borders.  In advancement of this aim, China will help subvert sanctions that are in existence and block further sanctions as they did recently on the U.N. Security Council.  If he takes a bold new approach, President Biden can put pressure on this relationship, prevent the further immiseration of North Koreans, and put move closer to our goal of complete denuclearization.

The first step in this new approach should be to engage in effective vaccine diplomacy.  The North Korean government is incredibly concerned about COVID because their health infrastructure is poor.  They were so worried that they closed their land border with China (which only recently reopened) and are keeping their athletes from participating in upcoming Olympic Games.  Last year, the North Korean media cast doubt on the efficacy of the vaccines they were offered (Sinovax and Astrazeneca) and while COVAX, the global vaccination-sharing group, has set aside doses for North Korea, the North Korean government has not made moves to accept them.  The United States has two incredibly effective vaccines which could be donated through international organizations.  Outside of creating a new opening for negotiations, it is a net positive for American security, as an unvaccinated population anywhere could give rise to a new variant.  The U.S. should also work with groups like UNICEF to push for greater humanitarian access, which has slowed to a trickle, to try and prevent starvation of the most vulnerable North Koreans.

Coupled with humanitarian and health efforts, the Biden administration should also move forward with a diplomatic push.  In order to accomplish this, Biden needs to get his Ambassador to South Korea nominated and confirmed quickly. He should also appoint a new U.S. Special Representative for the DPRK as the current special representative is dual-hatted as the Ambassador to Indonesia.  After fully assembling his team, Biden should begin negotiations in earnest by reaffirming the 2018 statement coming out of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit. Although it is incredibly vague, it is at least the most recent starting point.  He should then heed the voice of Frank Aum and George Lopez which suggest a graduated reciprocation in tension reduction (GRIT).  From the North Korean perspective, American denuclearization negotiations in modern times have led to the beyonneting of a dictator (in Libya), a snap back in sanctions when the party in power changes (in Iran), and security assurances that are not always fully supported (in Ukraine).   America must work to build trust if it hopes for negotiations “anywhere, anytime” to succeed.

The goal of America’s policy towards North Korea should remain complete denuclearization.  However, trying to isolate and sanction our way to this goal has not proven effective. This is due to the North Korean government’s ability to shift the pain to their people and China’s interests in propping up the regime.  The Biden administration has a chance to hit the reset button, turn the other cheek to provocations, and build a new North Korea policy that actually moves us closer to our goal. If we continue our current course, North Korea will slowly but surely achieve their aim of an intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile.

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