Biden's North Korea Policy Review Is Sparse on Details. Here's One Interpretation

commentary

May 6, 2021

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts as he attends a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in this image released by North Korea's Central News Agency on October 10, 2020, photo by KCNA/Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends a parade in this image released by North Korea's Central News Agency on October 10, 2020

Photo by KCNA/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Lowy Institute's Interpreter on May 6, 2021.

The Biden administration recently announced it had completed its North Korea policy review. The White House, through several public statements in recent days, dropped crumbs of details about its approach towards the Kim Jong-un regime and its advancing nuclear weapons program. Depending on the policy slant, statements could be interpreted in different ways and mean entirely different strategies towards Pyongyang.

There hasn't been a shortage of speculation about Biden's potential policies towards North Korea. Based on prior U.S. dealings with the Kim dynasty, some informed guesses about Washington's approach towards Pyongyang under the new administration can be had. Here's mine.

First, we know the White House will take a “calibrated practical approach” and is “open to diplomacy” with the North Koreans. There may be a temptation to magnify the second half of this comment provided by White House press secretary Jen Psaki and deem this a reflection of the Biden administration's absolute willingness or desire to engage with the Kim regime.

But this assumption may rest more on the expectation—or hope—that the new U.S. administration will seek to salvage the remnants of Washington's engagement over the past four years with Pyongyang at summit meetings in Singapore and Hanoi and resuscitate the momentum for talks and eventual negotiations for denuclearization. If there is one lesson learned from the summitry with North Korea, however—recall the four-point Singapore Joint Statement and the Hanoi meeting that culminated in no deal—it's that talks with the North Koreans should be considered warily.

If there is one lesson learned from the summitry with North Korea, it's that talks with the North Koreans should be considered warily.

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Second, the Biden administration has opted to emphasize the words “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, rather than the denuclearization of North Korea. This may be problematic, as co-opting the former expression may lend the impression that Washington is subscribing to the Kim regime's agenda of weakening the U.S.–South Korea alliance and evicting U.S. troops from Seoul. Or, at minimum, this may suggest an overlooking of the far-reaching implications of the expression. Such language may be welcomed by some countries—South Korea, notably—that prefer to subscribe to a different interpretation of the term, on the grounds that it will be less threatening to Pyongyang and thus more effective in convincing Kim to engage in denuclearization talks.

An informed guess might instead rest on what the administration coins as its calibrated practical approach. Not surprisingly, this suggests a break from the Trump administration's pendulum swing from “fire and fury” to summitry sparse in substance. At first glance, calibration alludes to moderation of some kind. A calibrated approach towards North Korea may imply that Washington has a range of policy measures or responses to Pyongyang's actions. To borrow the Kim regime's words, the United States may press for “corresponding measures” to North Korean actions.

For example, Pyongyang's missile provocations may be met with sanctions, diplomatic rebuke, or, in some cases, Washington downplaying the threat. Likewise, the North's continued, irreversible, rehabilitated behavior to verifiably reduce its nuclear threat or address the Kim regime's shoddy human rights record may help Kim Jong-un earn acknowledgement from the United States for progress and reforms. Measure for measure, in short.

A calibrated approach towards North Korea may imply that Washington has a range of policy measures or responses to Pyongyang's actions.

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Finally, and perhaps most importantly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent comments that the United States will look to see not only what North Korea says but what it actually does may suggest Washington's watchfulness of Pyongyang's moves. Should this be the case, perhaps the United States will attribute greater accountability to North Korea for the regime's words and actions. It may also spell political, diplomatic and economic consequences for any distasteful behavior on Pyongyang's part.

In the same vein, Blinken told reporters that “it is up to North Korea to decide whether it wants to engage or not.” Rather than attributing deference or control to the Kim regime, Blinken's comments may serve as a diplomatic yet onerous warning to Pyongyang that the heavy burden of engagement rests with the regime. The ball may be in North Korea's court, but when, how and in what direction Kim decides to pass the ball back to the United States will in turn determine Washington's policy options in response—and Kim's fate.

All of this is indeed speculation, although we may not be in the dark for much longer. U.S. President Joe Biden is slated to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on 21 May for their first in-person summit since the inauguration. The two sides are expected to discuss a range of policy issues, including curbing the Kim regime's nuclear ambitions and addressing its poor track record on human rights. The Biden administration may unveil its North Korea policy in full after the U.S.–South Korea summit.

In the meantime, the guessing games will continue.


Soo Kim is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and adjunct instructor at American University.

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