President Biden claims to be restoring American diplomacy and rebuilding relations with allies that were strained under Trump, but his handling of the relationship with South Korea and his North Korea policy to date reveal an administration that doesn’t know how to do either one. As a candidate, Biden faulted Trump for being too accommodating to North Korea, and now as president he is showing no signs of easing up on the "maximum pressure" campaign that his predecessor started. Like the last three presidents before him, Biden is approaching a nuclear-armed North Korea with maximalist demands that are sure to be rejected.
The Biden administration has reportedly tried making contact with North Korea through several channels, but without offering North Korea any incentive to resume negotiations these tentative efforts were met with a sharp rebuke. North Korea’s first vice minister for foreign affairs, Choe Son Hui, dismissed the administration’s messages as a "cheap trick" two weeks ago, and so far the Biden administration shows no sign of seeking a compromise solution on the nuclear issue.
Despite the administration’s talk of renewing alliances, the meeting of top U.S. and South Korean officials earlier this month revealed a remarkable lack of coordination between the two governments on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons when they used different, dueling phrases to describe their "common goal." The so-called "Quad" (made up of the US, India, Japan, and Australia) also issued a statement that addressed this issue without consulting with Seoul. These are minor mistakes, but they reflect an approach to both the U.S.-ROK relationship and North Korea policy that seems oblivious to the concerns of the allied government that has the greatest stake in successful negotiations with North Korea.
The reality was that Trump made no progress with North Korea because he refused to consider scaling back his goals or compromising on sanctions relief. Unfortunately, Biden seems set to make the same mistakes, up to and including using the same language that North Korea found so unappealing. Biden administration officials have repeatedly referred to the "denuclearization of North Korea" as the US goal. This phrase is deceptively similar to "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," which is the language that North Korea and South Korea prefer and have endorsed in the past, but the two phrases could not be more different in their implications.
The first phrase means that North Korea disarms completely without any changes to the US presence on the peninsula, while the North Korean view is that the second means more US concessions in the form of withdrawing its forces and making other guarantees. The first is an invention of the Trump administration, and the second is the one contained in multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. To confuse matters more, the Biden administration has occasionally used these phrases as if they are interchangeable when they are not. The administration’s muddled language earned it another rebuke with the North Korean government saying that they should "learn some geography." The sloppiness in language could also open the door to another dangerous scenario. As The Blue Roof put it recently, it "may signal to the national security hawks in Seoul that the United States is comfortable with South Korea’s nuclear armament."
It has been obvious for many years that North Korean disarmament is at best a long-term aspiration and not an achievable goal in the foreseeable future. There is a growing body of scholarship from arms control experts that supports pursuing a more modest arms control agreement with North Korea in recognition of this reality. A government that has gone to such great lengths and expense under enormous international pressure to build up a nuclear arsenal is extremely unlikely to give up everything that it has built. The best that the US and its allies can hope for in the near term is to get North Korea to agree to a verifiable cap on the number and deployment of its nuclear weapons. If the Biden administration is aware of these arguments, there is no sign that they are embracing the experts’ conclusions.
There are few other issues in the world that need a serious, sustained diplomatic approach than successfully negotiating with North Korea. Regrettably, US North Korea policy is also one of the most hidebound and outdated, and the Biden administration seems unusually ill-equipped to challenge the assumptions that have undergirded the policy for decades. Biden and Blinken have decades of experience in Washington, and that has left them with a mindset that prevents them from accepting the fait accompli of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The president confirmed this during a press conference last week when he said, "I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization." Even now, they still imagine that the genie can be put back in the bottle, and while they waste time on that the real opportunity for constructive diplomacy will be squandered.
North Korea has proven that sanctions cannot stop a targeted government that is determined to build its own nuclear deterrent. Likewise, sanctions will not force a government to give up those weapons once it has them. The only way that North Korea might be willing to consider limiting or reducing its arsenal is if it has confidence that it will be secure from attack if it makes a bargain with the US Meanwhile, Secretary of State Blinken is still holding out hope that China can somehow be compelled into pressuring North Korea into capitulating. This misunderstands China’s interests and overstates China’s influence over its putative ally, and it will lead to nothing just like every previous attempt to "use" China to solve this problem has.
The Biden administration needs to acknowledge that North Korean disarmament won’t be happening anytime soon. Instead, it should set aside the distant goal of denuclearization and focus its diplomatic efforts on a practical arms control compromise that stabilizes the Korean Peninsula. If that is successful, it could pave the way for productive negotiations to end the Korean War and aid in the continued rapprochement between the two Koreas.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.