The Biden Administration's North Korea Policy: Its Low Priority and Looming Crises

Tsuneo Watanabe


The Biden administration characterizes its foreign policy as "not Trump's but not Obama's, either." To demonstrate its legitimacy to the world, the Biden administration needs to be the antithesis of the Trump administration, which gave the impression of turning its back on the international community with its "America First" policy. On the other hand, it is imperative for President Biden or his successor Democratic presidential candidate to retain the support of US voters to win the 2024 presidential election. To this end, the "foreign policy for the middle class" that emphasizes US domestic politics is also important. They must also highlight their differences from the former Obama administration.

Its North Korea policy may be what will best distinguish the Biden administration's policy stance from the former Trump and Obama administrations. President Trump garnered no results from his "theatrical" performance at the first-ever US-North Korea summit with North Korean Workers' Party Chairman Kim Jong-un. It is easy for President Biden to underscore his difference from Trump, who failed to stop North Korea's nuclear development. The Obama administration that called for "strategic patience" with North Korea also failed to produce any tangible results to check North Korea's nuclear development. Its efforts resulted in only allowing North Korea more time to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, who were Vice President and Deputy Secretary of State, respectively, in the Obama administration, need to exhibit the difference in their administration from that of the Obama administration. They are well aware of this point in formulating the administration's North Korea policy.

However, due to its policy of rivalry and competition toward China, an inheritance from the Trump administration, the Biden administration cannot ask for cooperation nor seek the influence of China to deal with North Korea. Its North Korea policy is subordinate to its China policy. Now, the effectiveness of President Biden's North Korea policy is deemed to be questionable. After the Biden administration completed a review of its North Korea policy at the end of April 2021, Daniel Sneider, a long-time journalist and an observer of US diplomacy in Asia, wrote an article titled "Does Biden have a North Korea Policy? Not Really," asking a poignant question. 1

The Biden administration's policy of emphasizing its allies is a crucial factor helping to promote its rivalry and competition policy toward China. Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan, the two most important partners for the United States in its confrontation with China, widely differ from the United States in their stances toward North Korea. This constitutes a major constraint on the Biden administration's North Korea policy. This paper will discuss the direction of the Biden administration's North Korea policy and its current stagnation.

Low Priority Given to US North Korea Policy Seen from the US-ROK Summit

At the end of April 2021, when it finished a review of its North Korea policy, the Biden administration came up with a "calibrated practical approach." This is partly a continuation of the policy of the former administration --- taking over the joint statement signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim and keeping open the window for dialogue. In the meantime, the Biden administration has clarified its difference from the previous administration: It will not adopt the method of concluding a deal through summit talks. If North Korea understands this basic stance of the Biden administration and agrees to continue the dialogue, the administration will sit at the negotiation table. 2

To maintain political continuity from the previous administration, President Biden appointed Sung Kim, who had been in charge of US-North Korea negotiations as US ambassador to the Philippines in the Trump administration, as Special Envoy for North Korea. The problem of the previous administration's North Korea policy was that it prioritized President Trump's gaining political points without examining the content of the summit agreement. Sung Kim's appointment seems to have a dual purpose: sending a message to North Korea that the window for dialogue is not closed; getting North Korea to reaffirm the "firm and unwavering commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" 3 that Chairman Kim expressed in return for President Trump's "security assurance to North Korea" in the US-North Korea Joint Statement issued in Singapore in June 2018.

The appointment of Sung Kim as Special Envoy for North Korea was a measure to benefit the South Korean government. It was made public at a press conference following the US-ROK summit on May 21, 2021. Kim was engaged in drafting the 2018 US-North Korea Joint Statement; he is fluent in Korean and has many acquaintances in South Korea. The South Korean side welcomed his appointment. Further delay in appointing a Special Envoy for North Korea would make questionable the Biden administration's seriousness about its North Korea policy. On the other hand, Sung Kim is still serving concurrently as US ambassador to Indonesia. This fact suggests the low priority given to North Korea policy in the Biden administration's diplomacy, even though the administration's political appointments are delayed as a whole due to the opposition of the Republican Congress.

It was apparent that at the US-ROK summit in May President Moon Jae-in desired to raise the topic of a future dialogue with North Korea. But the Biden administration gave preference to an agreement on the other agenda items that it prioritized, giving a low priority to bilateral cooperation regarding North Korea. The Biden administration was indifferent to either President Trump's provocative approach adopted in the first half of his tenure ("rocket man" and "fire and fury") or the conciliatory approach in the second half ("I'm in love with Kim Jong-un"). 4

Georgetown University professor Victor Cha offered the following analysis on the US-ROK summit. Cooperation for vaccinations against COVID-19 that was then raging in South Korea was what the South Korean public and President Moon Jae-in anticipated most from the United States. Priority to be given to the North Korea issue was low. The former South Korean ambassador to the United States Ahn Ho-young noted that the meeting was "unique" compared to past US-ROK summits in that the US and ROK leaders spent more time on topics other than North Korea. 5

At the May summit, the Moon administration failed to obtain substantial cooperation from the US government with the North Korea issue or COVID-19 vaccinations. But President Biden expressed his support for the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" and "inter-Korean dialogue led by President Moon" and emphasized his stance that he would not close the window for negotiations with North Korea. As a result, the Moon administration could maintain its raison d'être as a promoter of dialogue with North Korea for the reunification of the two Koreas and publicize the "great success of the summit."

The Biden administration succeeded in including in the US-ROK Leaders' Joint Statement the phrases "the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait" and "(the allies) acknowledge the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism including the Quad" --- sensitive wording given that China is distrustful of the Quad, regarding it as part of international efforts to encircle it. The US administration made the South Korean government, which does not want to experience again the economic "harassment" inflicted by China when the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system was deployed in South Korea, accept the troublesome expressions. Furthermore, the joint statement sets forth that cooperation among Japan, the United States, and South Korea is of primary importance in confronting North Korea. This is also the ingenuity of the US side because the Moon administration would not risk overtly shaking hands with Japan under US pressure, given that South Korean public opinion is strongly anti-Japanese. 6

The Biden administration has no intention to engage in any "grand bargaining" with North Korea as the former Trump administration did. From the administration's standpoint, the North Korea issue is a low priority compared to the China issue. Yet, it wants to avoid being criticized for its inaction toward North Korea as the Obama administration was for its "strategic patience." North Korea looks down upon President Moon and shows enmity toward him. Since it has no intention of negotiating with Moon's "lame duck" administration that will step down next year, there is no prospect of progress in the inter-Korean dialogue. The Biden administration could without effort extract the necessary concessions from South Korea by paying only "lip service" to Moon's position on the North Korea issue.

Moreover, at the press conference following the summit talks with Moon, President Biden participated in a ceremony in which he awarded the Medal of Honor to a US veteran who fought the Chinese Volunteer Army in the Korean War, thereby sending the message that the United States and South Korea are the allies who fought with their blood against China and North Korea. It was a forcible message to South Korean politicians both in government and in opposition who aim to succeed President Moon Jae-in. There is no doubt that the Biden administration intended to demonstrate unity with its Korean ally rather than dialogue with North Korea. 7

How Will the Biden Administration Respond to North Korea's Provocations with a Spate of Missile Launches?

North Korea may be well aware that President Biden attaches a low priority to the North Korea issue. In the summer of 2021, the Biden administration was busy addressing a chaotic series of events that accompanied the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. As if it had waited for the termination of the withdrawal, North Korea launched its "newly developed long-range cruise missiles" (as announced by the North Korean government) on September 11 and 12, which was followed by the launching of two short-range ballistic missiles on September 15, a Hwasong-8 hypersonic missile (as announced by the North Korean government) on September 28, and a submarine-launched missile on October 19. On October 11, North Korea held the Defense Development Exhibition in Pyongyang, displaying its new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and SLBMs unveiled at the military parade last October. The "exhibition without buyers" is understood to aim at attracting outside attention besides boosting national prestige. 8

These North Korean moves aroused interest on the US side. An October 20 Washington Post article points out that the pace of North Korea's recent missile launches has come at a remarkable pace and that North Korea is testing various types of missiles and developing new technology capable of neutralizing efforts to detect the signs of a launch. The article adds that missile defense by the United States and its allies will face great difficulties. It also cites remarks by Shin Beomcheol, director of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy: "North Korea is concentrating on developing a variety of nuclear weapons and missiles that are difficult to evade." "It is a risk that could be a game-changer for South Korea and Japan." The article argues that North Korea's recent missile tests have focused on tactical nuclear weapons targeting neighboring countries, rather than long-range missiles aimed at the United States, thereby raising concerns among US allies and bringing the United States back to the negotiation table. 9

The same article points out that the Biden administration offered "specific proposals" and renewed calls for the North to return to talks; however, "the administration has not shown any public indication that it is willing to grant the sanctions relief that Kim desires." According to the article, the range of the SLBM fired on October 19 covers South Korea and Japan; since its flight altitude is not very high, it will be difficult for ground-based radars to detect it, making missile defense difficult. 10

From the inauguration of the Biden administration to the present, its North Korea policy has been low on the political agenda. North Korea, having observed the administration's stance, began military provocations targeting US allies, leaving the United States no choice but to take action. This is the understanding of US media on the recent moves of North Korea. Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, "The quick spate of qualitatively new capabilities being tested, I think, should remind us of all the behind-the-scenes research and development work North Korea was able to do in the last few years," adding, "I don't suspect that the overarching and primary purpose of this campaign is to put pressure on the U.S. and South Korea; the primary goal is just to improve their capabilities." North Korea is not merely provoking the United States to bring it to the negotiation table but is also steadily improving its nuclear missile capabilities. This is an "inconvenient truth" for the Biden administration that has not prioritized its North Korea policy.

In June 2021, the Biden administration sent the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim to South Korea for consultations with his South Korean counterpart and Takehiro Funakoshi, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, to re-strengthen cooperation between the three countries. However, the current mood surrounding Japan-Korea relations remained unchanged due to negative public sentiment prevailing in both countries. On October 24, Sung Kim visited South Korea again and held closed-door breakfast talks with Noh Kyu-duk, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At a press conference afterwards, Sung said, "I look forward to continuing to work with special representative Noh to explore different ideas and initiatives, including the ROK's end-of-war proposal… We hope the DPRK will respond positively to our outreach." This message failed to include any compelling message that would move North Korea. It appears that the Biden administration has not raised the priority of its North Korea policy as after he visited South Korea, Sung Kim left for Indonesia as US ambassador to the country.

Georgetown University professor Victor Cha contributed an article to the Washington Post on September 15 and predicted that North Korea would highly likely conduct a nuclear test as its missile tests continue. He recommends that the Biden administration start a dialogue with North Korea to offer cooperation on COVID-19 vaccinations. North Korea is now closing the border with China due to the COVID-19 outbreak and is facing an economic crisis stemming from massive floods.

Professor Cha warns that the US has only two options. 1) North Korea may conduct a nuclear test or a test launching of a long-range missile that reaches the US mainland. An imminent crisis will bring the two parties to the negotiation table. 2) The United States should take advantage of the current corona crisis in North Korea to take the initiative. North Korea declined an offer to accept a Chinese-made corona vaccine through the World Health Organization's COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) initiative. Kim Jong-un appears to distrust China. Professor Cha considers this situation an opportunity for the United States to extend a helping hand to North Korea. He adds that such a move would strengthen the relationship with the Moon Jae-in administration eager to continue a dialogue with the North. 11 A US administration hesitates to take active action but is eventually forced to the negotiating table due to North Korea's brinkmanship policy using nuclear tests or creating other critical situations. This is a "déjà vu" of US negotiations with North Korea to date. However, North Korea's nukes and missiles have acquired much more offensive capabilities than in the past. It will not be the same game.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will follow Professor Cha's recommendations and move actively or whether it will be obliged to respond passively, facing the resurgence of crises like a North Korean nuclear test. There will be further challenges for Biden's diplomacy.

(Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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