The Biden administration drafted its North Korea policy roughly six months ago. Since then, however, nothing has happened to mitigate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Continued weapons developments are cementing tensions and risks of escalation.
Few more details about the new U.S. “diplomacy and stern deterrence” approach vis-à-vis Pyongyang have emerged although diplomats from Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have met regularly. All the while, Kim Jong Un’s vow in January to develop more advanced weapons and boost his country’s nuclear forces is clearly taking shape. North Korea tested different cruise missile systems and short-range ballistic missiles in March and September. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that North Korea has restarted operations likely for the production of plutonium and tritium and satellite imagery analysts observe constructions presumably to increase uranium enrichment capabilities.
Convincing Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs is surely no easy task. But Washington’s plan of “diplomacy and stern deterrence” reveals no new ideas of how to achieve this. In fact, Biden’s Korea policy is geared towards accommodating the administration in Seoul and strengthening the alliance. The U.S.-South Korean summit in May and subsequent joint statement are the best illustrations of this. Yet, any (distant) prospects of halting Pyongyang’s weapons developments require serious engagement and constructive proposals by the U.S.
No Promising Approach for Diplomacy with North Korea
The Biden administration emphasizes diplomatic engagement with North Korea. Confirming the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” as the “ultimate goal,” Biden has also aimed his North Korea policy at practical progress and reducing tensions. Such wording signals flexibility of reaching attainable interim milestones—a desperately needed break from the previous administration’s fixation on an “all-or-nothing” approach and an overdue step to limit Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Biden administration has a team of veteran diplomats in place that are well familiar with North Korea. The fact that the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea juggles multiple assignments illustrates that Washington’s time and resource commitment are limited, however.
Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea are unlikely to take place anytime soon: The Biden administration is in an awkward position of not being able to completely disregard the three summit meetings between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019. At the same time, the administration doesn’t want to look like the revival of Barack Obama’s policies: After the short-lived 2012 deal between the U.S. and North Korea had collapsed, Washington adopted an approach of “strategic patience,” biding time until Pyongyang would opt for negotiations. Since then, North Korea has massively built its nuclear weapons capabilities.
In addition to a lack of new ideas and active engagement, the Biden administration is continuing the previous administration’s stance on inter-Korean dialogue. Conditioning inter-Korean talks to be “in lockstep” with dialogue (and progress) between North Korea and the U.S., however, has led to a demise of both tracks in 2019. Giving inter-Korean developments more leeway instead could facilitate North Korea’s willingness to cooperate, including on nuclear negotiations.
Managing Alliance Relations and Increasing Regional Confrontation
The “stern deterrence” half of Biden’s approach towards North Korea means more of the same for Pyongyang: Washington confirmed its extended deterrence commitments to Seoul. Both allies will expand their military cooperation and acknowledge trilateral relations with Japan as important. South Korea is now also improving its own deterrence, intelligence, and reconnaissance capabilities, which contribute to burden-sharing among allies and strengthen Seoul’s military might in the region.
While North Korea continues to boost its nuclear capabilities, South Korea is upgrading its conventional capabilities. Pyongyang’s and Seoul’s respective missile tests in mid-September and mutual condemnations exemplify what lies ahead: Weapons developments and increasing threat perceptions will only stoke tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, strengthening deterrence capabilities will fuel regional confrontation and an arms race, with the U.S., Japan, and South Korea on the one, and China, North Korea, and Russia on the other side. The Biden administration’s focus on encouraging Seoul’s conventional deterrence and rebuilding alliances suits Washington’s interest in burden-sharing as well as containing China, but also stimulates Pyongyang’s (and Beijing’s) pursuit of more advanced weapons.
Washington’s North Korea Policy: Neither Sustainable nor Successful
The Biden administration’s “diplomacy and stern deterrence” is tailored to the current administration in Seoul. Washington will have to amend this approach, however, if South Korean presidential elections in March 2022 bring about change. A more conservative administration in Seoul will surely advocate for more pressure on Pyongyang and emphasize sanctions for human rights violations. The Biden administration’s alliance management approach is therefore short-sighted and likely to (have to) change next year.
Finally, if the Biden administration wants to avert the looming disaster of its North Korea policy, it will need to add incentives to facilitate Pyongyang’s willingness to cooperate. These may include U.S. compromise to settle for a limited nuclear non-proliferation agreement in return for selective sanctions relief, such as exempting inter-Korean cooperation projects. This could entice Kim Jong Un to let his negotiators answer Washington’s behind-the-scenes diplomatic outreach. All the while, North Korea will hang on to its own version of “stern deterrence” and diplomacy plus strategic patience, improving its nuclear deterrence capabilities while biding time for Washington to make concessions for diplomacy.
Betty Suh is PhD fellow at the Institute for Peace Studies and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), and visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Her PhD research focuses on North Korea, its nuclear weapons program and signaling; her work covers nuclear non-proliferation and security issues in the Asia-Pacific more broadly.