Time is Running Out: Biden Stalls to Organize Foreign Policy with North Korea

North Korea launched several short-range missiles last weekend following a grim warning to the Biden administration for organizing military exercises with South Korea. Negotiations with Pyongyang and Seoul have been put on the backburner as Washington struggles to find footing amidst mass shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than conform or revolt from his predecessors’ example, which may be tempting under the clock, Biden should avoid silent pressure and reengage diplomatically with realistic, ally-backed goals.

According to The Washington Post, the missile tests “represent North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s first challenge” to the Biden administration, who has been hesitant to outline an approach to “the regime’s nuclear threat” as it navigates a foreign policy strategy. The regime expressed disapproval of U.S. military exercises last week when Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned that if Biden’s administration “wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink.” 

The gravity of her words may have been lost in translation as the Biden administration appears to be losing sleep over other matters not associated with North Korea. A senior administration official dismissed the imminence of the threat as launching missiles are “a normal part of the kind of testing that North Korea would do,” but still acknowledged the challenge that diplomacy with Pyongyang will present. While many Americans aren’t yet losing sleep over the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the tests are a reminder for the U.S. to develop a strategy to address the threat. 

A senior administration official said that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan would “discuss the outcomes” of a North Korean policy in its “final stages” of review. Details released so far follow Biden’s trend of addressing how his policy will differ from Trump’s rather than what it hopes to accomplish. President Donald Trump followed a top-down approach of meeting with Kim directly while President Barak Obama withheld diplomacy until Pyongyang expressed appropriate behavior. However, both approaches did little to stop the “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human’s rights,” according to the U.N.. Trump’s summit diplomacy at least convinced the regime to refrain from launching long-range missiles or detonating a nuclear device, a threat that concerned Obama during his presidency.

The Biden administration should not settle into Barack Obama’s “wait-and-see approach,” as described by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, which will only make North Korea more likely to “buck than buckle” under pressure. The regime will continue to expand its nuclear program regardless of the silence from Washington. Jungsup Kim, a senior researcher at Sejong Institute, believes the “pressure strategy” is problematic because “we are not in a position to ignore North Korea, even if it cannot be trusted. Every day, the North Korean nuclear capability is advancing.”

While the Trump administration increased dialogue between heads of state, President Trump’s overzealous and personality-driven engagements with Kim Jung Un prevent diplomatic engagement. The dictator entered the mainstream news, not as a nuke-wielding threat, but a fellow comic engaging in jest. Obama told Trump before he left office that North Korea stands as the most urgent national security issue. Trump proceeded to launch the most extensive diplomacy measures in U.S. history between Pyongyang and Washington, temporarily freezing escalating tensions. Now that many of Obama’s national security officials are back in their positions, they are inheriting a greater threat than before that requires a different approach and level of urgency. “North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs grew over the last four years,” the Washington Post reported, and “the regime and its arsenal became an even greater threat.” 

Biden should not abandon Trump’s four-year relational progress with North Korea. The 38 North Report argues that the statement signed by Trump and Kim Jong Un at their 2018 Singapore Summit can be “salvaged as a framework for new discussions.” Further, Kim has shown a willingness to engage in international diplomacy and is publicly acknowledging the dire state of his country’s economy, meaning he is open to measures that will improve the lives of his citizens. 

The Biden Administration should not forsake the previous administration’s goals of denuclearizing North Korea nor should it ignore atrocities suffered by its people. It should also be acutely aware of the nuclear threat growing that threatens our national security and that of allied countries, meaning diplomacy must be high-risk, low-reward, politically sensitive, and not over Twitter.