The latest parlor game among North Korea watchers is predicting the next significant provocation. It is a given that it will happen and just a matter of when the regime will take action that is intended to test the administration of President Biden. The safe bet is that North Korea will conduct a nuclear or missile test early this year because the regime tends to take escalatory action early with an American or South Korean administration. The regime feels it wins leverage by creating an unwanted crisis a new government is eager to offer concessions over. It is a tactic which often works.
There are plenty of new reasons why Pyongyang would stay true to form. The regime faces a dire financial situation from coronavirus restrictions, international sanctions, and weather calamities layered atop its decades of disastrous socialist policies. Forcing the United States and its allies to reduce financial sanctions would bring economic benefits. Kim Jong Un broadcast this when he announced over a year ago that he no longer felt bound by his moratorium in nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. He recently vowed to continue developing these forces, including new capabilities that could overwhelm the American defenses.
North Korea has the military hardware to back such warnings. The regime paraded its new massive intercontinental ballistic missile, two submarine launched ballistic missiles, and more unidentified missiles, none of which have yet been tested. A launch of any of those will raise the tensions and present a challenge to Biden. However, Kim could also hold off on missile flights like he did most of last year. There would be many reasons for the hiatus. Perhaps Pyongyang is refraining from actions to drive the United States back to talks until health conditions in the pandemic will let North Korean diplomats sit across from the American counterparts.
The potential for a nuclear or missile test has led several analysts to claim the United States must offer concessions, like lowering sanctions, to buy continued constraint on testing from North Korea. But doing so would be like a shopkeeper offering a down payment on extortion payments before the local robber even makes the demand. Our North Korea policy debates continue to revolve around the false paradigm of sanctions or diplomacy. Many heated arguments arise over which side has failed worse.
But such arguments are like asking, "What tool is best to build a house? A hammer or screwdriver?" Both are needed, like sanctions and diplomacy, along with military deterrence, information operations, humanitarian aid, and law enforcement, in a North Korea policy. Global support to maintain sanctions until threshold behavior is addressed is often misread for clear resistance to any form of engagement. Another tired notion is the call for new thinking, followed by the repackaging of ideas for more concessions. The United States, South Korea, and other nations tried security pledges, summit meetings, and even sanctions relaxation, all to no avail.
The abandonment of denuclearization in favor for the "limit and freeze" policy ignores that the latter did not work when North Korea signed the Nonproliferation Treaty, International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and Inter Korean nuclear deal. Further, the "incremental steps" deal was also tried with the Leap Day deal and the Agreed Framework, as well as three different iterations of statements from the Six Party Talks.
Biden has declared that future summit meetings with North Korea will be conditioned on actual progress in any negotiations. But it is unclear how strongly Biden will enact sanctions and enforce the law, as well as decide what a nuclear deal with North Korea would be like. So his administration needs to affirm the previous offers to engage with North Korea.
Washington and Seoul must urge the regime to refrain from provocations, and declare that a nuclear or missile test would undermine diplomacy and lead to a tougher policy. The start of a new year, certainly when combined with a new administration, raises hopes for turning the page in the nuclear story of North Korea. Unfortunately, this is a well worn journal.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 2/11/21