Kim Jong Un (center) attends a June 7 consultative meeting of senior officials of the Party Central Committee and provincial Party committees at the office building of the Party Central Committee in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

In an article that appeared in Asia Times, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Alex Wong, a former US State Department official, argued that North Korea, behind the bluster and rhetoric, does not have a clear approach or strategy when it comes to dealing with the outside world.

I disagree. Pyongyang has maintained a clear, coherent strategy centered on two key tenets: the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the complete lifting of all sanctions levied against the North Korean regime.

At the 68th United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament in 2013, Pak Kil Yon, then North Korean vice-minister of foreign affairs, stated that the ultimate goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula had been a consistent aspect of North Korean foreign policy.

North Korea, through its state media and press releases, routinely clarifies that its policy centers on the complete denuclearization of both Koreas with a demand that the United States must also lift the nuclear-umbrella guarantees currently afforded to South Korea.

Such a strategy is not new. Calls for the complete denuclearization of the peninsula have appeared in major agreements including the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in 1992, the Agreed Framework between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1994, the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks in 2005, and in the Joint Statement between the United States and North Korea in 2018, among other agreements.

North Korean state media have also continued to push such a strategy through various mentions and publications since the 1990s. In short, North Korea is unlikely to relinquish its nuclear-weapons programs without the United States and South Korea taking similar measures such as eliminating the nuclear-umbrella promises to South Korea.

North Korea also places a heavy emphasis on the development and health of the domestic economy within its grand strategy. Kim Jong Un, after all, in a 2013 speech declared that the byungjin line – Kim’s guiding political strategy – is one focused not only on the development of a viable nuclear-weapons program, but also on North Korea’s economic development.

Just last year, a tearful Kim praised ordinary North Koreans for bearing the brunt of the country’s economic woes while lamenting on his failure to secure the health of the overall economy.

While economic mismanagement and other factors have contributed to North Korea’s economic woes, international sanctions have greatly changed the economy. Export bans on North Korean coal have redirected resources to the domestic economy, while the same trade restrictions within international sanctions contributed to an 88% decrease in trade with China and an overall 4% contraction of the North Korean economy.

Therefore, a central aspect of North Korea’s negotiating strategy is the complete elimination of sanctions levied against the regime. During the Donald Trump administration’s diplomatic outreach, North Korea worked tirelessly to pressure the United States into granting some form of sanctions relief, particularly around the Singapore and Hanoi summits.

At the 2019 US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, talks abruptly broke down over a failure to reach a consensus on sanctions relief. Since Kim has tied his legitimacy to the advancement of the North Korean economy, Pyongyang is unlikely to accept any deal that does not feature some form of sanctions relief.

Wong’s missive on North Korea’s grand strategy centers on a misreading of two central aspects of North Korean domestic politics.

First, Wong claims that the North Korean bureaucracy is dysfunctional by design as a coup-proofing measure. However, North Korean bureaucratic institutions play a critical and active role in the policymaking process. Under Kim Jong Il, for example, high-ranking bureaucrats effectively used state media outlets to advance political ideas and engage in policy debates.

Although Kim Jung Un has made a variety of bureaucratic shifts – including restructuring the institutions and shifting personnel – state bureaucratic institutions still play a critical role in shaping and implementing policy. For example, economic shifts are greatly influenced by a coterie of monied elites who hold positions in which they can, as Eleanor Albert writes, “facilitate and execute policy, as well as control hard-currency operations, resources, and information.”

On matters of foreign policy, particularly inter-Korean relations, the bureaucracy plays an important role. For example, Kim Kye Gwan, a central player in North Korea’s bureaucracy, was accused of having been the architect behind the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010 and the Sony hack in 2014.

Like Kim Yo Jong, the supreme leader’s sister (and as such, of course, not a bureaucrat), who more recently has spearheaded a shift toward a more antagonistic relationship with South Korea, Kim Kye Gwan managed to be a critical player in the foreign-policy decision-making apparatus due to his ability not only to execute but also to interpret guidance from Kim Jong Un effectively.

Second, Wong asserts that Kim Jong Un himself remains indecisive on foreign policy. Many analysts cite Kim’s failure to deliver on his threatened 2019 “Christmas gift” as evidence of his indecisiveness. However, Kim carried through on his threat, albeit 10 months later in his October 2020 military parade, by showcasing more new military capabilities, including a new ballistic missile.

Even seemingly self-destructive actions, such as destroying the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in June 2020, are calculated moves by North Korea to bring world powers back to the negotiating table.

As political scientist Ramon Pacheco Pardo highlights, North Korea has clearly learned that resorting to brinkmanship can bring the United States back to the negotiating table and make certain concessions to avoid a resumption of a costly conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, Kim is likely to continue resorting to brinkmanship when he feels it can enhance his negotiating position.

In short, North Korea has clearly articulated that any nuclear deal will center on security guarantees, specifically on America’s nuclear umbrella in Asia, and the complete relief of sanctions levied against the regime.

So if North Korea has a clearly articulated strategy and is willing to resort to brinkmanship, what can US President Joe Biden’s administration do to engage North Korea effectively? The administration can work with regional allies and adversaries to create a positive sanctions regime that rewards North Korea for taking positive steps toward denuclearization.

Such a regime can transform North Korea’s behavior by offering rewards for expanded engagement and de-escalation and clear, swift punishment for backsliding or brinkmanship.

Benjamin Zimmer

Benjamin Zimmer is a program assistant at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where his research centers on East Asian security with a focus on the Korean Peninsula. His writings have appeared in various publications, including Security Challenges, Charged Affairs, and the Houston Chronicle.