Resolving North Korea’s nuclear and missile challenges peacefully has been an extremely difficult task since the mid-1980s, when the issue first emerged as an international problem. Over the last three decades, the United States has endeavored to address this issue diplomatically while simultaneously adopting other approaches, such as deterrence, military pressure, and economic sanctions. In spite of recursive military tensions on the Korean peninsula, such diplomatic efforts have culminated in four main agreements: the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2005–2007 Six-Party Talks Agreements, and the 2012 Leap-Day Agreement, and the 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore Agreement. All these agreements, however, have largely failed to produce the successful outcomes stipulated in the agreements – the denuclearization of North Korea and/or a moratorium on the nation’s nuclear and missile tests. Instead, North Korea has been enhancing its nuclear and missile capabilities, even after the three dramatic summits between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018–2019.
In order to cope with these challenges, the Biden administration completed a North Korea policy review in April 2021, and President Joe Biden will reportedly seek policies positioned in-between Trump’s grand bargain approach and Obama’s strategic patience. However, the detailed content of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy has not yet been announced, probably to maintain strategic ambiguity at this initial stage. In pursuing its North Korea policy, what principles should the Biden administration focus on to address such a longstanding, difficult problem?
Stronger Deterrence vs. Maximizing Engagement
Two of the most attention-catching approaches recently suggested by North Korea experts are polar opposites: stronger deterrence and maximizing engagement. Claiming that diplomatic negotiations have ultimately failed, the former places great emphasis on enacting harsher deterrence measures to preclude North Korea, whose nuclear capabilities continue to grow, from taking provocative action. Stronger deterrence encompasses the United States’ unambiguous nuclear doctrine toward North Korea and would involve tactics such as deploying U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons in or near South Korea, deploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, enhancing information operations, integrating the South Korean and U.S. missile defense systems more thoroughly, and so on.
Meanwhile, maximizing engagement would have the United States make unilateral conciliatory gestures – such as partial sanctions relief and a moratorium on U.S. strategic asset deployment to South Korea – in order to induce North Korea to return to peace talks and finalize an interim deal on denuclearization. After these steps, comprehensive engagement efforts would ensue. Among those efforts would be talks between the U.S. Department of Defense and Korean People’s Army, lifting travel restrictions from the U.S. to North Korea for people-to-people interactions, resumption of remains recovery operations, economic cooperation, and energy/environmental cooperation. These measures could lessen the mutual threat perception and build habits of trust and collaboration.
Despite their well-versed strategical logic, both approaches are quite dangerous and unrealistic. Stronger deterrence could unnecessarily heighten military tensions on the Korean peninsula and throughout the East Asian region. Given that Kim Jong Un has asserted that North Korea will respond to the United States with the principle of “power for power and goodwill for goodwill,” North Korea would not back down in response to enhanced deterrence measures from the U.S. and South Korea. Rather, the nation would be more likely to take provocative acts, especially if China tacitly continues to support the Kim regime. Under the intensifying China-U.S. rivalry, China does not desire to lose its influence on North Korea and has taken firm action to keep the nation on its side, as viewed in the five summits between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in 2018–2019. Thus, though perhaps not intending to provoke an all-out war, North Korea could seriously disrupt regional order by conducting another nuclear, long-range missile test, which they have not done since Trump’s maximum pressure and engagement strategy was enacted.
Maximizing engagement also lacks feasibility. It seems very hard to imagine that a U.S. government of any political party would initiate avenues of engagement with North Korea without tying them to the nation’s denuclearization, given the fact that the American public’s general perception of North Korea is largely negative. This approach can be easily regarded as appeasement, which means that the U.S. would provide unilateral concessions in response to North Korea’s bad behavior. Such actions could also create an undesirable precedent for nuclear proliferation, thereby potentially damaging the validity of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Moreover, the United States’ unilateral concessions could be met with harsh opposition from conservatives within South Korea, the Japanese government, and the general U.S. public due to their persistent refusal to accept North Korea as a de facto nuclear-armed nation.
Conciliatory Yet Cautious Engagement
Considering all these factors, neither stronger deterrence nor maximizing engagement appears to be the most effective approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile problem. Instead, I would suggest a more optimal approach – conciliatory yet cautious engagement. As widely agreed upon among regional experts, an all-out war must not be an option for the resolution of the North Korea issue, since the human and material costs would be astronomical. Thus, my suggestion is based on a conviction that steering North Korea toward positive behavioral changes through engagement is the best option.
First, resuming diplomatic talks with North Korea is imperative. The 2019 Kim-Trump Hanoi Summit culminated in a deadlock, mainly due to Washington’s “big deal” request: in exchange for North Korea’s completed denuclearization, the United States would provide full compensations, including sanctions relief, an end-of-war declaration, a peace treaty, and the normalization of North Korea-U.S. diplomatic relations. Since the proposal of this “big deal,” the two nations have failed to compromise on their diverging stances. The U.S. argued for this grand bargain approach while North Korea clung to a so-called “action-for-action” approach. In order to persuade North Korea to act, the Biden administration will need to acknowledge that the grand bargain approach is unacceptable to North Korea, due to their prioritization of regime security and survival. Instead, the U.S. should adopt a phased denuclearization method by offering certain compensation measures such as sanctions relief in proportion to the steps North Korea will take to denuclearize.
Second, North Korea’s denuclearization should be the ultimate goal of these diplomatic talks, although achieving the complete denuclearization of North Korea might be implausible. Since North Korea is a sovereign nation, the United States cannot forcibly inspect all suspected nuclear sites, including the nation’s military bases, unless North Korean leaders fully disclose their nuclear capabilities in a voluntary manner. North Korea could hide its nuclear capabilities, particularly its nuclear programs based in highly enriched uranium (HEU), in the numerous underground tunnels of the nation’s mountainous areas. U.S. satellites and reconnaissance planes cannot easily detect such subterranean places.
Even so, the result of diplomatic negotiations should not end up allowing North Korea’s tacit recognition as a nuclear-armed nation. In other words, even after diplomatic talks and agreements, North Korea should maintain its official responsibility to denuclearize itself in exchange for certain compensation measures, although the nation could still deceive the U.S. and the international community by concealing its secret nuclear programs. In the long run, however, maintaining these clandestine nuclear capabilities would be a liability for North Korea because the sudden revelation of its secret nuclear programs could seriously harm the nation’s international reputation and credibility. Thus, this scenario could radically damage North Korea’s economy in a situation where the nation has come to be more closely tied to international economy after compensation measures, such as North Korea-U.S. diplomatic normalization, are provided.
Third, it is necessary to concede previous U.S. governments’ strict approaches – i.e. complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) or final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD). As shown in the deadlock of the 2005-2007 Six-Party Talks, North Korea is not likely to accept the United States’ and/or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s unfettered inspection of both declared and suspected nuclear sites within its territory. The Six-Party Talks agreements collapsed because Pyongyang vehemently opposed Washington’s fervent request to freely inspect nuclear sites throughout North Korea and to collect samples to measure the amount of plutonium produced in Yongbyon’s nuclear complex. A transparent verification system is understandably important to the U.S., but at a certain point they need to trust in North Korea’s declarations and dismantlement of its nuclear warheads, materials, and facilities.
A Bumpy Road Ahead
U.S. policy should move in the direction of conciliatory yet cautious engagement to effectively address North Korea’s nuclear and missile challenges. This approach could at least prevent the rise of military tensions on the Korean peninsula and avert the de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-armed nation. However, it is necessary to recognize that the path to reaching the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization will be bumpy no matter what. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
Numerous factors could disrupt the process of reaching and implementing a diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and North Korea, including the difficulty for the U.S. and South Korea to pursue a consistent North Korea policy, North Korea’s leveraging of China-U.S. rivalry, and domestic political changes within the U.S., North Korea, and South Korea. Furthermore, the ongoing pandemic is a very challenging, unpredictable factor in terms of resuming diplomatic negotiations. At this point, sanctions relief is not a viable incentive compared to the pre-COVID period, since North Korea has no choice but to close its doors to the outside due to the fear of regime insecurity deriving from the worsening pandemic.