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Biden’s pragmatic play on North Korea

Vice President Harris listens to President Biden detail new executive actions to combat gun violence
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In his first press conference as president, Joe Biden affirmatively answered a question about whether North Korea is “the top foreign policy issue that he was watching.” While more specific details about the Biden administration’s approach to North Korea may be forthcoming after a policy review that should be completed in the near future, officials already offered some insight into the direction the president plans to take on North Korea policy. 

State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated “…we will adopt a new approach, an approach that fundamentally seeks to keep the American people and our allies safe.” President Biden also stated in his news conference that he is “…prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki later noted that it is not the intention of the administration for that diplomacy to include a meeting between Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

For decades American policymakers have been unsuccessful in their attempts to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea. Yet Price acknowledged “…2021 is not 2016. It’s not 2009. It’s not 1994. There are changed circumstances and conditions and changed leadership, of course, not only in this country but in North Korea, with our treaty allies. This is a challenge that has evolved over time.”

Meanwhile the arsenal of North Korean nuclear weapons and the systems to deliver them have developed in both size and sophistication over the course of several American administrations.

Public opinion data from the 2020 Chicago Council Survey highlights the unpopularity of some of the options facing policymakers seeking the denuclearization of North Korea. Military action is deeply unpopular. Historic lows of Americans support air strikes against North Korean nuclear production facilities or sending the American military to destroy North Korean military facilities: 29 percent and 24 percent respectively. 

However, reverting to a policy of “strategic patience” may also not resonate with the American public, especially if such a policy does not address the potential of an expanding North Korean nuclear arsenal. Only 11 percent of those surveyed support accepting that North Korea will continue to produce nuclear weapons. This was the least-popular option among those presented to the American public regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Given these challenges, policymakers should prepare for North Korea to be a long-term challenge for the United States. If the denuclearization of North Korea remains the ultimate goal of the Biden administration, as the president stated it does, it should be acknowledged that such a goal is unlikely in the short-term. However, there are still steps the administration can take to invest in a strategy that advances American interests, reduces the chance of conflict and promotes peace and prosperity in northeast Asia.

Policymakers should engage the next generation of Americans, who may inherit the challenges posed by North Korea through deeper investments in national security language initiatives, STEM education and regional studies programs. Also, relying on more experts from diverse fields, sectors and backgrounds can help to yield creative approaches and solutions to long-standing policy challenges. 

Despite North Korea’s reputation as a “black hole” for intelligence collection, there is still a great deal of information and insight into North Korea available to the public. This is thanks in part to a proliferation of open source information and advances in publicly available technology such as satellite imagery. Policymakers can supplement this information and deepen the understanding of North Korea by researchers and the public by expanding access to the Open Source Enterprise.

The administration should also pursue realistic shorter-term goals that align with American interests and seek to promote regional peace and prosperity. It would be prudent to make attempts to prevent additional advancements in North Korea’s missile program. In addition, mitigating state-sponsored illicit behavior, especially cybercrime, should be a priority. North Korea possesses significant cyber capabilities. If left unchecked and used for nefarious purposes, they could pose significant security and financial risks to American businesses and the public. From 2019 to November 2020 alone, it is reported that North Korean cyber actors were responsible for the theft of $316.4 million in virtual assets globally.

It will also be critical to address the trust deficit that exists between North Korea and the United States. Especially in light of the fate of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who abandoned his nuclear weapons program in 2003 only to be killed eight years later by rebel forces backed by NATO, Kim likely sees his nuclear weapons as a security guarantee not just for his country but also for himself.

There are no easy solutions to the policy challenges posed by North Korea. But making progress on realistic and pragmatic goals can help to build trust and promote greater peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

Matt Abbott is director of government and diplomatic programs at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any institutional positions.

Tags Government of North Korea Jen Psaki Joe Biden Kim Jong-un Koreas–United States DMZ Summit North Korea North Korea North Korea and weapons of mass destruction North Korea–United States relations Nuclear disarmament Presidency of Donald Trump

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