Like his predecessors, Biden faces a formidable task with North Korea

Like his predecessors, Biden faces a formidable task with North Korea
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The North Koreans, a South Korean colleague once remarked to me, consider opaqueness a national security asset. Certainly, the recently concluded five-year Congress of the North Korean Workers’ Party had its share of conflicting signals and provided a feast for analysts to chew over.  But one aspect of North Korean endeavors seems to have changed little: Whatever the country’s economic challenges, North Korea continues to have a healthy appetite for modernizing and further developing its nuclear arsenal, and posing a continued challenge for U.S. policymakers in formulating policies on what to do about it. 

For longtime watchers of the dreary North Korea political landscape, one of the more refreshing aspects of Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korean showcases shirtless soldiers lying on broken glass, smashing bricks on head North Korea's Kim rips US, promises 'invincible' military North Korea's Kim notes 'grim' economy while marking anniversary of ruling party MORE’s leadership personality is his continued willingness to acknowledge when things haven’t gone all that well. And at least on the economic side, Kim did not disappoint in conveying his disappointment. Kim pointed to wholesale failures in achieving the five-year economic development plan, “across all sectors,” and, as he did in his less-than-cheerful New Year’s message, warned of “belt-tightening” ahead.  

It is a tired North Korean metaphor he has resorted to before, but he first used it some years ago in the context of not having to ask North Koreans to do it again. Times have changed. Kim was careful not to accept the failures himself, preferring to discuss floods and other weather conditions; the international situation, including United Nations-imposed sanctions; and, not surprisingly, the devastating effects that the pandemic has had on North Korea’s trade, especially with China, on which it so heavily depends.  

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He stopped short of acknowledging any cases of coronavirus inside North Korea, apparently a taboo subject despite the obvious fact that North Korea is not immune, but he promised a muddled set of bureaucratic changes ahead, whose purpose would be somehow to improve economic performance.

At times during the economic parts of his speech to the party Congress, Kim summoned tears to his eyes in discussing the hardships his people face, but those tears went away quickly as he laid out the country’s nuclear ambitions, a “strategic and predominant goal.” Despite three summits with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE, the fact that North Korea’s ambitions have been a major element of the U.S. administration’s security goals, and despite the fact that the burdensome international sanctions are inexorably linked to denuclearization, Kim was having none of it.

In great detail, Kim laid out the country’s nuclear programs that include further development of short-range missiles, solid fuel rocketry, miniaturization, precision and, as an October parade in Kim Sung Square revealed, new developments in intercontinental weapons. Big talk and boasting are a North Korean staple, but there is little to suggest that these programs are in name only. All indications are that they, indeed, are the country’s priorities and sooner or later will come on line. 

Kim spoke of diplomacy and not wanting to rule it out, but coupled that thought with the characterization of the U.S. as a hostile “archenemy”; this, despite the summits in which President Trump, perhaps without knowing what he had done, leaned toward a goal of the North Koreans: weakening the U.S.-South Korea security relationship.  

North Korea has tried to characterize nuclear talks with the U.S. and others as “arms control talks,” akin to those pursued during the time of U.S.-Soviet Union negotiations. While it has accepted limits on its production and development — as it did in September 2005, and more vaguely in Singapore in June 2018 — and to a vision of doing away with nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, it has resisted efforts to link that vision to an implementation plan to achieve it and finally denuclearize. In his defiant remarks on nuclear policy to the party Congress, Kim gave little hint of moving forward with such a process.

For the incoming Biden administration, the task ahead is formidable. The longer North Korea develops and modernizes its program, the more difficult it will be to end it. Some argue that the horse has left the barn and that what remains is to limit the problem. That would require accepting a change in the region’s strategic relationships, creating for North Korea a tremendous opportunity to pressure others to recalibrate their policies by paying a form of contemporary tribute. Most worrisome, as we saw with Trump’s instinctive reaction to Kim’s complaints about U.S.-South Korea military cooperation, North Korea’s goal is to weaken U.S. resolve on the peninsula. 

Most painful for any incoming administration is that the policy choices are starkly limited and involve the use of levers and approaches whose application at this point — given the unsuccessful history of North Korean negotiations — must be seen as a triumph of hope over experience. For example, can the U.S. work with U.N. Security Council partners to break apart sanctions and provide pieces of sanctions relief while keeping strong the remaining measures, in return for elements of denuclearization? Sanctions regimes seem to work best when they are all-or-nothing — and yet, that approach offers insufficient flexibility to kick-start negotiations or to exploit potential opportunities, as there might have been at the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi when the North Koreans offered to eliminate the Yongbyon facility in return for sanctions relief. 

What about the format of negotiations? The Trump administration preferred bilateral, with belated after-action briefings to others. But is North Korea really a U.S.-only problem? Whether there is a return to the Six Party process, or four or eight or 10 parties, is to be determined. But the U.S. should not put itself in the position of exclusively taking on the burden of negotiations and subjecting itself to pressures and peanut-gallery commentary from those who have no responsibility for success. 

Finally, the U.S.-China relationship is, in a word, fraught. And yet, any way out of this seemingly impenetrable jungle is going to involve fewer long-range invectives, broad aphorisms with dubious historical antecedents — e.g., the Peloponnesian War; really? — and more cooperation on contemporary issues of mutual interest. Rather than engaging in a protracted staring contest, the U.S. and China should look to some practical approaches. North Korea might be the right place to start.

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador, including to South Korea in 2004-05. He served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now the George W. Ball adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.