When Joe Biden’s first official act, when he claims the big chair in the Oval Office, will be nothing more than bringing a vicious, all-consuming coronavirus pandemic under some degree of control. His work is becoming more and more difficult as the days go by; in the United States last week there were an average of about 160,000 cases per day, a number that will certainly increase during the vacation season.
Sooner or later, however, Biden will have to look beyond America’s borders and deal with the delicate world as it is – and that means, after all, that he will have to deal with North Korea, a fatal problem that has plagued the US governments since the Korean War.
During the presidential election campaign, Biden did not say much about the North Korean question. When the issue was raised, the former vice president largely stuck to the script: he hammered in President Donald Trump for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, pointed out that Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal actually grew during Trump’s term, and briefly explained how he would approach the dossier. Biden’s approach is essentially the same conventional paradigm that has guided U.S. policy toward North Korea since the early 1990s-he is increasing financial pressure, strengthening U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan, and trying to convince China that compliance with UN Security Council resolutions against the North is in its own national security interest. As Antony Blinken, Biden’s candidate for Secretary of State, told CBS News last September, “We need to work closely with allies such as South Korea and Japan and urge China to build real economic pressure to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.
But what Biden and his national security team have not explained is why they are convinced that this combination would be as successful as it has been in the past. North Korea today is about as unwilling to give up its nuclear deterrent as it was ten years ago. In fact, the uncomfortable reality is that the horse of denuclearization has left the stable. Whether the United States likes it or not, North Korea will remain a de facto nuclear weapons state for the foreseeable future-and it is unlikely that Pyongyang will be forced to reevaluate itself through sanctions or military threats.
Some will describe this conclusion as defeatist. Others, particularly in the arms control community, see a nuclear-armed North Korea (not to mention the way the North has acquired these nuclear weapons in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and several UN Security Council resolutions) as a threat to their goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. The widespread opinion on Capitol Hill is that North Korea cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, either because the Kim regime’s command and control system is questionable or because the regime itself is eager to use them.
However, these concerns do not stand up to scrutiny. While it is true that the Kim regime’s decision-making process is a mystery to most outsiders, this requires more engagement between U.S. and North Korean officials-not less. Washington can improve its understanding of North Korea’s nuclear program if it begins to view dialogue as a necessary part of good governance and not as a reward for bad behavior. Simple diplomatic isolation of the North Koreans serves no other purpose than to maintain a stalemate and delay failure. Indeed, a continuation of maximum US pressure will further poison the atmosphere and ruin any chance Washington has of improving its knowledge of the North’s nuclear weapons systems.
For the United States, the Kim regime is easily demonized and ridiculed. To most Americans, the whole country looks like one huge sect, with millions of people synchronously clapping their hands and crying with overwhelming joy when Kim Jong-un steps onto a podium. North Korea, a construct of the former Soviet Union, looks like a place where modern technology and economic prosperity are perishing.
But while North Korea is often described as unpredictable or overly ruthless, the country’s elite has proven to be quite rational about understanding its borders. There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un is a stern, unforgivable brute when it comes to consolidating his own power. He takes no risks with his own security and is quick to crush any rival power center that might swell. After all, this is the same Kim who murdered his own uncle and half-brother and who is more than willing to impose a death sentence if anyone is negligent in his duties.
But at no time in his decades-long tenure has Kim demonstrated his intention to actually use the nuclear weapons developed at great cost by him and his father Kim Jong-il for economic gain. The reason for this is quite simple: the dropping of a missile with a nuclear warhead on the U.S. mainland, South Korea or Japan would trigger a military retaliatory strike against the North that would be so powerful and unforgiving that it would most likely end in the complete annihilation of the Kim family dynasty. For a man like Kim Jong-un, who is concerned about maintaining his undisputed status at the top of the North Korean hierarchy, it is hard to imagine that launching a war against a superpower is a wise policy.
The lesson for U.S. policy is clear: as crazy as North Korea may seem to outsiders, in the long run the country can be deterred. And importantly, deterrence gives the United States time to explore realistic and achievable diplomatic arrangements, including some kind of arms control agreement that at least stops and provides additional clarity on the further development of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
North Korea can be considered a U.S. opponent, but this status should not preclude a prudent dialogue as an option. Rather than pressuring Pyongyang with even more economic pressure and snubbing diplomacy until the North meets a number of preconditions, the United States should be confident enough to open permanent channels of communication to ensure that tensions do not permanently strain bilateral relations. The Biden administration could even go so far as to exchange liaison officers with the North, a cost-effective and reasonable measure that would set in motion a more normal and less tension-filled relationship between the United States and North Korea.
The foreign policy establishment in Washington will take a quick look at these recommendations and shout “appeasement” at the top of its lungs. But given that the foreign policy establishment in Washington has completely and utterly failed in North Korea policy over the past three decades, Joe Biden would be best served by ignoring these nagging comments.
Daniel DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner, a National Interest staffer and a fellow of the think tank Defense Priorities.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.