Biden should return to ‘maximum pressure’ on North Korea

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a photo session with officers and soldiers who took part in a celebration the 90th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army on April 27, 2022. North Korea launched a suspected ballistic missile toward its eastern waters on May 4, South Korean and Japanese officials said, days after Kim vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible pace.”

As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, and China continues to escalate its aggressive rhetoric and actions against Taiwan, North Korea has reemerged to join the anti-Western pressure and diversion campaign. Iran likely is preparing for more trouble-making.

U.S. and international observers are raising the likelihood that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will carry out a nuclear test at “any time,” Pyongyang’s seventh overall and its first in five years, since the beginning of the Trump administration. 

Last week, North Korea launched a barrage of eight ballistic missiles into waters not far from Japan’s Economic Exclusion Zone. Sung Kim, Washington’s special representative to North Korea, said that at this point, half-way through 2022, Pyongyang has conducted 31 missile tests, an unprecedented number exceeding its previous record-breaking 25 in all of 2019.

South Korea’s National Security Council called the latest launches “a challenge to the security posture” of the newly-inaugurated president, Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon replaced the manifestly dovish Moon Jae-in, who practiced an engagement approach with the North that might be called Sunshine Policy 2.0. Moon went so far as to curtail joint military exercises with the United States as a goodwill gesture to Kim.

By contrast, during his campaign, Yoon called Kim “a rude boy” and promised to make him “snap out of it.” He has started his administration by taking a more confrontational approach to Kim’s aggressive tactics.

“Just to escape, temporarily, North Korean provocation or conflict is not something that we should do,” he said, regarding Moon’s conciliatory strategy. “This kind of approach over the past five years, has proven to be a failure.” Seoul joined Washington in responding to Pyongyang’s latest missile firings with the launch of eight missiles off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula.

Had Yoon been in office instead of Moon when President Trump was conducting his “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, the outcome might have been markedly different. A united U.S.-South Korea front conceivably could have persuaded Kim of the advantages of making progress on denuclearization — and, potentially, on ameliorating some of his regime’s atrocious human rights practices.

Instead, while Trump was (a) brandishing kinetic warnings that more than matched Kim’s wild threats, (b) imposing the strongest economic sanctions ever against Pyongyang, and (c) delivering a series of speeches excoriating Kim’s human rights depredations and challenging his fitness to govern, Moon was embarrassing himself as a supplicant before both Kim and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Kim’s sponsor and senior partner in hostile anti-Western behavior.

Pyongyang and Beijing were well-versed in exploiting Western political divisions and managed to stymie Trump’s potential breakthrough on denuclearization. Their blocking effort was highlighted when Xi summoned Kim to Beijing for a spine-stiffening command performance  before he was scheduled to meet with Trump in Singapore. 

President Biden should return to at least two of the three elements of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. It is highly doubtful this administration will reprise the “fire and fury” rhetoric Trump employed to send a clear, intimidating message to Pyongyang — though firing matching missiles last week after Kim’s recent tests was an effective response. 

While Trump’s sanctions component was supposedly at a “crippling” level, exceptions, subsequent modifications, and China’s systematic violations weakened the intended effect. The program needs to be revisited — along with the imposition of secondary sanctions on China for undermining the original ones.

But the element of U.S. pressure that arguably made the most profound impression on Kim was the unprecedented focus Trump personally directed at the regime’s horrific human rights crimes.  Over a period of months in 2017-2018, he delivered three major speeches on the subject before international audiences at South Korea’s National Assembly, the United Nations, and a State of the Union address dramatically featuring a tearful crutch-waving North Korean defector. He hosted a group of North Korean escapees from Kim’s national prison to tell their stories in an extended televised visit to the White House.  

Trump also made a point several times of mentioning North Korea’s torture of American student Otto Warmbier and his return to the U.S. in a coma, from which he died soon thereafter. Trump’s message was effectively the one Biden also delivered against Russian President Vladimir Putin: this monster “cannot remain in power.”

The combination of economic, military and reputational pressures seemed to shock Kim into agreeing to meet Trump for serious talks about denuclearization. But Xi’s intervention caused Kim to back away from meaningful concessions. Kim’s flattery led to what Trump described as a “love affair,” in which he joined Moon in the cutback of joint exercises, absolved Kim of responsibility for Warmbier’s treatment, and turned his attention away from the humanitarian nightmare of the North Korean population he initially highlighted.

Biden is uniquely situated to pick up the human rights ball and run with it. Unlike Trump, he is known for his public displays of empathy and compassion for human suffering. And his administration’s focus on human rights and democracy provides the perfect platform for him, working with a like-minded and cooperative South Korean government, to raise the world’s attention to the grotesque humanitarian situation in North Korea.

For decades, Henry Kissinger and other geopolitical “realists” have argued that ideological differences over values and internal governance cannot be allowed to interfere with existential issues such as nuclear proliferation and war avoidance. Similarly, the Moon administration was notoriously weak on the human rights issue in North Korea, for fear it would inhibit illusory government-to-government dialogue.  

But the “pragmatic” decades-long treatment of human rights and denuclearization as separate moral universes clearly has not produced progress in either realm. History has taught that regimes oppressing their people tend to be the ones threatening their neighbors as well. A disdain for the rule of law and international norms underlies both sets of behavior. 

When Kim feared that Trump was serious about delegitimizing his regime — not only internationally but in the eyes of his own people — he took notice. Had Trump sustained the effort, and had it been reinforced by a clear-eyed Moon government, the region might face a different situation in North Korea today. As the world keeps re-learning, now from Putin, it is better to confront tyrants earlier than later, but later is better than never. Passivity in the face of aggression invites more aggression.

Kim must be put on his back foot and given something to worry about at home, rather than having the luxury of planning his next anti-Western provocation. The message also should ricochet to Xi’s communist regime with its own domestic atrocities and aggressive ambitions.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Biden China aggression Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula Kim Jong Un North Korea North Korea sanctions Yoon Suk-yeol

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