Biden must tell Kim: Begin denuclearization, end dehumanization of North Koreans

Biden must tell Kim: Begin denuclearization, end dehumanization of North Koreans
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The Biden administration has completed its comprehensive review of North Korea policy and also has settled on the core principles of its China policy (though the Defense Department has not finished a separate Indo-Pacific review).

Administration spokespersons are at pains to describe the two approaches as innovative departures from both the Trump and Obama policies. On North Korea, White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiFive states have yet to administer one dose of vaccine to half their populations Biden has convinced allies 'America is back,' says France's Macron Biden, Macron huddle on sidelines of G7 summit MORE said last week that the president has effectively directed a Goldilocks policy — not too hot like President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE’s “maximum pressure” and “fire and fury,” nor too cool like President Obama’s “strategic patience” and detached aloofness. 

Kurt Campbell, China policy coordinator, sounding more like an outside observer of administration policy than an active participant, explained President BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE’s approach this way:  “It’s an interesting compilation and combination — almost an amalgam — of elements from President Obama and President Trump. I think there is wisdom in some of each approach, even though there’s some contradictions as well.”


He repeated Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenSunday shows preview: Biden foreign policy in focus as Dem tensions boil up back home Concerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Biden should remind Erdogan of NATO's basic tenets and values MORE’s message that cooperation with China is also part of the Biden policy. “We’re interested in practical, clear areas where we could work together on issues where we share mutual concerns.” The administration repeatedly mentions climate change, Iran and North Korea as prime areas for potential cooperation. 

But that optimism assumes Beijing shares Washington’s concerns on those matters, a dubious proposition at best given China’s actions on all three and its general hostility to American and Western interests. China has enabled and protected North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, fending off severe international sanctions and undermining even those it reluctantly joined. It also has defended Pyongyang’s human rights depredations as being none of the West’s business.

The Psaki-Campbell accounts seek to convey a message of dispassionate and innovative administration analysis that has arrived at novel, potentially more promising, approaches to the China and North Korea problems. But both characterizations are somewhat illusory in overstating the substantive differences with prior administrations.

On China, Biden has effectively ratified and adopted the Trump administration’s assertive China policies, which departed significantly from the Obama approach and that of previous administrations. Granted, the Biden team has expanded the rhetorical emphasis on human rights and the multinational dimension of the policy. But they exaggerate the extent to which even those elements are a genuine departure from the actions and statements of a range of Trump officials. While Trump himself demonstrated no values-driven passion for human rights, he nevertheless empowered his subordinates to persist in addressing those issues and readily signed into law every related congressional initiative.

Where the Biden team has actually abandoned Trump administration policies is on North Korea, but only by veering back to Obama’s wait-and-see posture they say they are discarding. “Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with a clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administrations have not achieved this objective,” Psaki stated in dismissing the usefulness of summit diplomacy and large, grand bargains. “Instead, the Biden administration will pursue a phased agreement with the North to fully denuclearize and make practical progress to increase national security.”   


That idea is hardly new. Since the Clinton administration, there have been numerous interim agreements as part of a process of step-by-step, reciprocal concessions — such as Pyongyang’s moratoria on nuclear and missile testing in exchange for food and fuel aid and sanctions relief.  As Psaki said, none of the prior efforts succeeded in making real progress toward denuclearization. 

Trump’s harsh-toned “maximum pressure” campaign led to a June 2018 summit with Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing North Korea calls U.S.-South Korea missile development hostile policy Biden's invisible foreign policy success MORE in Singapore at which Kim agreed to resuscitate a 2005 goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s intervention in summoning Kim to China three months earlier had contributed to a perceptible stiffening of Pyongyang’s negotiating position. Left to his own devices without Xi looking over his shoulder, it is unknown how far Kim might have gone in striking a more detailed “grand bargain” with Trump.

Internal deliberations have not yet revealed how the Biden team judged these events in deciding to revert back to the Obama approach rather than reviving the initially-promising Trump policy.   Presumably, the review process would have determined what worked to advance the aspirational denuclearization process as far as it went under Trump, and then why progress ended after Singapore.

The policy reviewers were surely aware that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign had three interrelated components: strong multinational economic sanctions, the “fire and fury” rhetoric that posed a credible use of force, and a public shaming information push on Pyongyang’s human rights outrages that implicitly challenged the Kim regime’s legitimacy.

The Biden administration has indicated it will continue the sanctions program, but it is unlikely to threaten “the complete destruction of North Korea” as Trump did, unless Kim returns to his own bloody threats against the United States or its allies.

Yet, the third element of Trump’s pressure campaign — the prospect of threatening to encourage regime change, as Trump did in three major speeches in 2017 and 2018 and in hosting North Korean victims of Kim’s crimes against humanity — is a natural instrument of choice for the Biden administration given its professed emphasis on human rights. 

Unlike Trump, Biden speaks passionately and empathetically about human rights and the human suffering that occurs when they are denied. He should tell Kim directly (but in a private conversation at first) that if North Korea conducts any further nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches, the United States will do a launch of its own — a sustained global shaming campaign that will pick up where Trump left off. 

It will provide the gruesome details of North Korea’s gulag system and the daily horrors that even people not in those camps are forced to endure, making the point that the entire country is one giant concentration camp. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) has been working on these issues for 20 years. HRNK facilitated Trump’s White House-hosting of North Korean victims and his spotlighting of Ji Seong-ho, the disabled North Korean defector who tearfully waved his crutch is defiance of Kim’s brutal tyranny during the 2018 State of the Union. 

But, even if Kim finds this a private offer he can’t refuse and continues to exercise his own strategic patience on nuclear and missile tests, Biden should demand a full accounting of those programs, to be followed by the kind of phased denuclearization Psaki reported he is contemplating. The step-by-step approach should be merged with the methodical dismantling of North Korea’s hideous camps. Denuclearization must proceed as dehumanization of the North Korean people ends.

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.