The recently-departed Trump Administration has touted the achievements of its North Korea policy.
These purported accomplishments include Trump’s claim that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” and his insistence that a US war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would have occurred had anyone other than Trump been US president.
A more accurate assessment, however, is that Trump was as unsuccessful as his predecessor presidents in imposing America’s will on Pyongyang, although Trump’s lack of success was singularly spectacular. Trump set the world on edge when he threatened to use military force to stop North Korea’s nuclear ICBM development, but then had the dubious distinction of being in office when the DPRK apparently attained the critical capabilities.
Trump then took the unconventional steps of personally meeting with Kim Jong Un and publicly describing him in respectful terms, which seemingly achieved nothing except to elevate Kim’s international prestige. By late 2020, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had nothing to boast of but having persuaded Kim to temporarily halt DPRK nuclear test explosions and long-range missile practice flights.
Kim announced an end of these moratoria on the first day of 2021. In the meantime, Pyongyang had continued its development of weapons that could threaten the US or its allies, including via submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
New US President Joe Biden will be the latest to lead what appears to be a failed US policy toward North Korea. Against US preferences, North Korea is now a de facto nuclear weapons state; one of the world’s leading outlaw states, engaging in bad behavior ranging from smuggling to cyber-attacks to large-scale human rights atrocities; and an avowed adversary of both the US and regional allies Japan and South Korea.
The Biden Administration enters office without creative or promising solutions to this long-running stalemate.
The new US government is poised to pursue the old goal of denuclearization through old methods such as asking China to exert economic pressure to get Pyongyang to negotiate, and proposing a freeze plus monitoring in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
These approaches are unlikely to succeed. Pyongyang has shown no willingness to take serious steps toward giving up its nuclear missile capability. The North Koreans did not abandon their design when Chinese economic pressure peaked in 2017. Nor did they accept Trump’s 2018 vision for DPRK economic development.
What they have shown is a willingness to sacrifice unimportant or obsolete parts of their weapons infrastructure in order to get major sanctions relief, and a desire to pursue an arms control agreement with the US that would imply permanent recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state.
US policy is therefore likely to continue to fail. It is a “failure,” however, with a few mitigating successes.
The US government played a crucial role in the creation of the North Korea problem. Washington’s decision near the end of World War II to propose dividing the Korean Peninsula into separate zones of US and Soviet control, even if the intent was that the division should be temporary, facilitated the emergence of a Kim regime in the North and led to the deaths of an estimated two to three million Koreans during the Korean War.
But creating the DPRK also created the Republic of Korea (ROK). The longer-term result of the division was to prevent two-thirds of the Peninsula’s population from falling under the tyranny of the Kim regime.
The criticism that the US-ROK alliance abetted the persistence of military dictatorships in South Korea overlooks the efforts of the US government to prod Seoul toward liberalization, including US officials intervening to save the life of opposition leader and future ROK President Kim Dae Jung.
The US policy of security cooperation with the ROK to deter a North Korean attack did not prevent South Korea from eventually democratizing in the late 1980s. Indeed, while mostly an accomplishment of the Korean people, democratization occurred with significant help from the US government.
The survival of a Kim regime hostile to US interests does not indicate a lack of US ability to project decisive military power into the region. For decades, US forces have had the capability to destroy and replace the North Korean government by either conventional or nuclear means.
The asymmetry is almost total; the North Koreans have had little, if any, means of striking the US homeland. They still may not, as the viability of the DPRK’s nuclear ICBMs remains theoretical, and these missiles would face a gauntlet of US anti-missile defenses.
As the DPRK was making progress toward a workable nuclear-armed ICBM, Pyongyang taunted Americans with threats to nuke US cities, even releasing videos simulating nuclear attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
The US government could have attempted to thwart the gathering threat in a preventive military strike. While this would have exposed South Koreans to the danger of massive North Korean retaliation, North America would have been safe. Americans had the opportunity to preclude a threat to their security and to pass the cost onto a foreign ally.
As US Senator Lindsay Graham expressed this grim calculus, a war to prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons “will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here [in the US].”
To Washington’s credit, however, it resisted the temptation to carry out a preventive military attack on North Korea amidst opposition by its South Korean ally – a case of a correct decision in US policy toward the DPRK. One wonders whether Russia or China would have shown as much restraint under similar circumstances.
While US mistakes are a large part of the story, America lacks decisive influence over North Korea mainly due to the DPRK’s own circumstances: the extreme insecurity of the regime; its durability due to its success in co-opting the elite classes and the military while suppressing dissent among the rest of the population with a massive internal security apparatus; and the credible danger that North Korean forces could destroy Seoul, where much of South Korea’s wealth and population are concentrated.
All of this put together is too much for us to expect that Biden’s team can overcome.
Biden’s nominee as secretary of state, Antony Blinken, may well reach that conclusion if hasn’t done so already. He said at his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that the new administration will “review the entire approach and policy toward North Korea because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration, and it’s a problem that has not gotten better. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”
Given that the new administration is burdened by so much historical dead weight – and is well aware of that fact – it is sufficient that Washington keeps open the possibility of a fair negotiated settlement and avoids making a big mistake with North Korea.
The administration should not, for example, accept a deal that involves a lot of sanctions relief by the US but little nuclear and missile disarmament by the DPRK. Nor should it enter into an agreement based on unverifiable North Korean pledges.
Biden should resist recognizing the DPRK as a permanent nuclear weapons state, which offers the US costs but no benefits.
Yet while maintaining due skepticism based on Pyongyang’s past behavior, Biden’s team should not be blind to the possibility that Kim’s calculations may change in ways favorable to the US, and should be prepared to exploit such an opportunity.
The world needs Biden to restore America’s role of constructive global leadership but does not necessarily need for him to win a Nobel Prize for his work in Korea.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.