When unveiling its North Korea policy last year, the Biden administration vowed to pursue “principled diplomacy.” Specifics remain unclear, but overall, the Biden strategy marks a return to the traditional U.S. approach, which prioritized the importance of the alliance with South Korea while conditioning benefits to Pyongyang on progress toward denuclearization. U.S. and South Korean policies will converge under newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol, but Pyongyang will continue augmenting its nuclear and missile arsenals.
Biden’s Policy Short on Negotiating Details. Most descriptions of Biden’s North Korea policy were handed down in the Administration’s early days. Secretary of State Tony Blinken indicated he would pursue an incremental arms control and disarmament approach in “stages and phases.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan commented that the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would remain the objective, but the Biden administration would utilize a “calibrated, practical, measured approach.” There has been little elucidation of these terms in the last year.
Seeking to differentiate itself from previous administrations, Biden officials explained that their policy would “not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience,” referring to the policies of the Trump and Obama administrations. Despite claims that it would “adopt a new strategy,” the Administration has yet to clearly articulate those differences. Nor has it articulated the parameters of an acceptable North Korean denuclearization accord.
Biden indicated he would return to a traditional “bottom up” policy formulation and diplomatic outreach to North Korea rather than the “top down” approach of summit meetings with little preparation. Biden commented that he was willing to meet with Kim Jong-un but conditioned on the North Korean leader agreeing to reduce his nuclear weapons as well as significant progress at working-level meetings toward a detailed denuclearization agreement.
The Biden administration has declared it is willing to meet “anywhere, anytime without preconditions.” North Korea, however, repeatedly dismissed all entreaties for dialogue. Pyongyang asserted Washington must first abandon its “hostile policy,” which it defines as abrogating the U.S.-South Korean alliance, removing all U.S. forces from the region, ending all international sanctions, and ceasing any criticism of the regime.
The Biden administration vowed to push North Korea more strongly on its human rights abuses and well as use sanctions to apply pressure on the regime. But it has not yet announced a North Korean human rights envoy and has sanctioned only a limited number of entities.
Welcome South Korean Policy Changes. Newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol will bring South Korea’s foreign and security policies into greater alignment with those of the United States. Under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, there were notable differences between Washington and Seoul regarding an end-of-war declaration, wartime operational control transition, North Korean policy, and improving South Korean-Japanese relations.
Despite sharp divergence with President Moon on key policies, the Biden administration tried to avoid strong public disagreements while seeking middle ground. Washington and Seoul papered over policy differences in their May 2021 summit statement.
Yoon sees a strong alliance with Washington as the foundation for a principled approach to North Korea, resisting Chinese coercion, and enabling a larger South Korean security role in the Indo-Pacific region. Yoon criticized Moon’s overly conciliatory approach to North Korea and declared that the age of “appeasing” North Korea is over.
Yoon dismissed Moon’s proposal for an end-of-war declaration with North Korea as a meaningless gesture if not accompanied by progress in reducing Pyongyang’s military threat. Moon’s forceful advocacy and false claims that the United States was in agreement caused strains in the bilateral relationship.
Like Biden, Yoon advocates diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang but conditioning summit meetings and provision of benefits (including reduction of sanctions) on tangible, negotiated progress toward North Korean denuclearization. Both presidents reject offering concessions simply to induce the regime to resume diplomatic talks. Yoon also criticized Moon’s downplaying of Pyongyang’s bombastic threats, human rights abuses, and repeated violations of UN resolutions.
The May 2022 summit between Biden and Yoon was highly successful in underscoring the strong bilateral relationship, shared values and objectives, and the importance of South Korea to addressing regional challenges. The lengthy joint statement addressed a broad agenda of security, economic, technological, and societal issues.
Preparing for North Korean Provocations. The collapse of the 2019 U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi led Kim’s regime to restart extensive missile launches, all of which violate 11 UN resolutions. Pyongyang has unveiled numerous new missile systems during test launches and military parades. Most new systems were short- and medium-range missiles, but the regime resumed ICBM launches in early 2022. To date, the ICBM launches have been on highly lofted trajectories to not overfly neighboring countries.
More egregious North Korean violations of UN resolutions, such as a nuclear test or ICBM launch over Japan, will likely trigger resumption of bilateral U.S.-South Korean combined military exercises and rotational deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula. Both actions have been curtailed since 2018, causing a degradation of allied deterrence and defense capabilities while eliciting no reciprocal security or diplomatic responses from North Korea.
It is less clear whether the Biden administration will implement more extensive sanctions against North Korean, Chinese, and other foreign violators of UN resolutions and U.S. laws. Successive U.S. administrations have refrained from fully utilizing existing authorities to penalize regime defiance of the international community and criminal activity.
The United States and its allies face common security threats from North Korea and China but have been constrained in trilateral military planning due to strained South Korean-Japanese relations. President Yoon has pledged to improve relations with Tokyo, but the United States will need to continue playing a behind-the-scenes role to facilitate reconciliation. Washington should also coordinate with its allies to ensure that missile defenses are sufficient to counter increasing North Korean missile threats.
Strong alliances are in the strategic interests of the United States, augmenting the nation’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic capabilities. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have all taken steps to augment their security posture and remove points of friction inhibiting cooperation. North Korea will, however, continue to pose challenges, as it is certain to continue additional, potentially more provocative, missile and nuclear tests.
This piece originally appeared in Korea on Point