Biden's North Korea Policy Is Adrift

There is a big mismatch between Biden’s assessment of the importance of the issue and the attention that he has paid to it.

Van Jackson considers Joe Biden’s North Korea policy and finds it sorely lacking:

There was a time when these positions would have been hailed as responsible and risk averse. But the circumstances have changed dramatically, and Biden’s conservatism on North Korea has become dangerously problematic. His emphasis on pressure and confrontation, mixed with gradualism and probing diplomacy, in pursuit of nothing less than an adversary’s unilateral disarmament amounts to an unrealistic, do-nothing posture. Worse, it reflects an imperious mindset that dates back to what is often called America’s “unipolar moment.”

Jackson is right, and this assessment of Biden’s unsatisfactory handling of North Korea is much the same as mine. The Biden-Moon summit last week was more productive on other issues, but it offered nothing new or interesting with respect to resuming negotiations with Pyongyang. The U.S. is in a wait-and-see mode, and Secretary Blinken has said that the “ball is in their court.” While this passive approach poses few immediate risks for Biden, it is letting an opportunity for revived talks slip away and it is neglecting an issue that could produce a new crisis in the next few years.

Two months ago, Biden affirmed that North Korea was the most important foreign policy issue facing the country, but since then the only thing that has happened is the appointment of Sung Kim as special envoy last week. There is a big mismatch between Biden’s assessment of the importance of the issue and the attention that he has paid to it.

Jackson recommends that Biden take the initiative by offering at least some token sanctions relief:

There must also be some form of at least symbolic sanctions relief, offered unilaterally. Biden has to do something meaningful—ideally a number of things in concert—to prove he’s not just Obama 2.0. Only then can he realistically pursue limits on North Korea’s arsenal through arms control.

I agree that this is what Biden needs to do, but I’m not sure that he is prepared to take the first step. Given how stubbornly Biden has clung to the “maximum pressure” sanctions he inherited from Trump on Iran and Venezuela so far, it seems unlikely that Biden will offer North Korea anything up front. There is a widespread, pernicious assumption in Washington that sanctions relief should be granted only after receiving concessions, and even then a president is liable to be accused of “giving” the other government a gift when he is merely ending punitive measures. Because the U.S. is so bad at delivering sanctions relief even when the other government complies with demands, other governments are understandably wary of making an agreement with Washington without being offered some incentives first. If Biden wants to make any progress on this issue, he needs to break with that pattern. No doubt Republican hawks will whine that Biden is “appeasing” North Korea, but they will say this no matter what he does.

As Jackson points out, the time to make progress is limited by the political calendar in South Korea. While Moon is still in office, the U.S. will have a reliable partner in North Korea diplomacy, but there is no guarantee that this will continue after South Korean elections next year:

When conservatives eventually come back to power, South Korea will likely readopt a more distrusting, hawkish, uncompromising policy toward Pyongyang. That means Biden has a very limited time window to try and put the North Korea situation on a more stable footing without experiencing blowback from the South.

Before Biden can do this, he will need to recognize that denuclearization isn’t happening. Biden needs to accept that a more modest but achievable arms control agreement with North Korea is preferable to the continued drift towards a future crisis. Just as the Biden administration was caught flat-footed by the crisis in Palestine over the last month because it insisted on ignoring the warnings it was receiving, they are in danger of being caught by surprise again with North Korea.