North Korea may be preparing to conduct a new nuclear test in the near future, and if that happens there will be an outpouring of predictable hawkish demands that the United States take some punitive action in response. The Biden administration should ignore what the hawks want, but it should also revise its policy towards North Korea and make a serious effort to revive negotiations with Pyongyang. The appointment of a former nuclear negotiator, Choe Son Hui, as North Korea’s new foreign minister suggests that there could be an opening for renewed engagement if the US and South Korea are willing to respond constructively. The alternative to a new diplomatic initiative is to keep North Korea policy on its current mindless course until there is an accident or miscalculation that creates a new crisis.
The US has largely ignored North Korea since Biden came into office, and Biden has kept in place the failed "maximum pressure" campaign inherited from Trump. The Biden administration is still light years away from acknowledging the bankruptcy of its current approach, but another nuclear test might just shake them out of their complacency. Whether North Korea carries out another nuclear test or not, that campaign needs to end because it inflicts additional pointless hardship on the people of North Korea and impedes diplomacy. Beyond that, the US needs to adopt a more realistic set of arms control goals to promote greater stability and security in the region.
To the extent that the US has paid any attention to North Korea in the last year and a half, it has mainly been to threaten additional sanctions, but no one seriously believes that more sanctions will achieve anything except to stoke hostility. There are few examples of sanctions failure as egregious as the North Korean case. It has been one of the most sanctioned states in the world, and its nuclear weapons program has gone from strength to strength. Pressure tactics have not only failed to dissuade North Korea from building up a sophisticated nuclear arsenal and the missiles needed to deliver these weapons, but they have helped to drive North Korea to create an increasingly advanced program in response to outside pressure. The more that the US and its allies have insisted that North Korean nuclear weapons are unacceptable, the more weapons North Korea has built, and there is no reason to think that will change now that Biden is repeating the same talking points.
North Korea is a full-fledged nuclear weapons state, and the US will have to learn to accept that it will periodically conduct tests as it continues to improve and expand its arsenal. Part of learning to live with a North Korean arsenal is to stop treating routine testing as occasions for panic. It might be possible to give North Korea incentives to return to its previous moratorium on testing, but that would involve making concessions on sanctions relief and inter-Korean cooperation that previous administrations have been unwilling to grant.
The Trump administration’s attempts at negotiations were flawed because of maximalist US demands, but the willingness to hold direct talks briefly allowed for a real thaw in otherwise terrible relations. One big mistake that Trump made was in listening to the hardliners around him. Once he was following advice from dedicated opponents of diplomacy, including John Bolton, it was inevitable that the negotiations would fail.
It would have been ideal to strike a nonproliferation bargain with North Korea decades ago before it acquired nuclear weapons, but that opportunity was lost due to the same arrogant presumption that is still at the heart of US policy towards that country. The best that we can hope for now is finding a modus vivendi that accepts that North Korea’s arsenal isn’t going anywhere, and as part of that understanding the US may be able to secure an arms control agreement that limits the size and deployment of that arsenal. The US had a chance to make progress on this front at the Hanoi summit, but Trump’s all-or-nothing attitude squandered it.
The more pressured and threatened the North Korean government has been, the more it has expanded and refined its arsenal. Further punitive measures will only make things worse. When a government believes that its security and its own survival are at stake, there is no economic warfare severe enough to compel it to change course. The US needs to recognize that it isn’t going to force North Korea into disarmament, and it must find a way to manage relations with their government that does not rely on coercion alone. That means that the US should resume negotiations with North Korea, and those negotiations should also cover the formal conclusion of the Korean War and the restoration of full diplomatic relations. That would require making a bold break with the status quo, but that is exactly what needs to happen.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist 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.