Biden can’t afford to laugh-off Kim Jong Un’s provocations

september missile north korea 2017 kim
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea on September 16, 2017.

  • President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend.
  • With that attitude, Biden may miss a chance at diplomacy, leading to more back and forth tension-creating events by both sides in the months ahead.
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We can fill a book full of troubling adjectives to describe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, and all of the times they have needless raised international tensions to the point that many analysts worried about the possible resumption of the Korean War – a conflict that almost certainly would go nuclear.

Whatever the case, we rarely talk about the times when US policy toward the DPRK adds unneeded kindling to an already smoldering situation, when policymakers in Washington and even our own chief executive make a rhetorical or tactical mistake that makes a bad situation on the Korean Peninsula even worse.

So when President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend, missing a chance at more needed diplomacy, the stage was set for what Pyongyang always seems to do best: match pressure or perceived loss of face by a show of strength, or its own style of maximum pressure.

And this is just the beginning. We should expect more back and forth tension-creating events coming from both sides in the months ahead.

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Joe Biden, then vice president, meets South Korean and US soldiers at Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone near the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, December 7, 2013.

First up is the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review findings, which will set the direction for Korean Peninsula strategy for years to come. Having failed to learn from the Trump years that there is a possibility of talking with the Kim regime, Team Biden seems to have all but determined to apply more pressure and double down on sanctions that have so many holes in them one could drive a truck through them.

Washington also seems set to want to try and make China somehow responsible for sanctions enforcement, and is already trying a shaming strategy to get them to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile advances. Clearly this is something Beijing won’t do, as it will never allow North Korea to become destabilized in any way – and that is what it would take for the Kim family to come to the bargaining table on its knees.

Sadly it seems we are set to replay what every administration has tried to do for nearly three decades now, apply some sort of new pressure strategy to get North Korea to give up the only weapon it has to fend off its greatest fear, a future US military campaign that seeks to change the regime in Pyongyang.

Considering the billions of dollars invested and likely hundreds of thousands of North Koreans that have died due to a lack of investment in the most basic of societal needs because of its nuclear quest, there is no magic formula to get them to denuclearize.

NOrth Korea missile launch kim may 2017
Kim Jong a Hwasong-12, May 15, 2017.

And yet, we play what politicians here in Washington have determined is a necessary game of posturing, as if we have some way to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or missiles, because no administration wants to take on what is perceived as the political fallout of such an admission that only arms control and threat mitigation are the only rational policies left.

What does all of this mean? Well, most likely, North Korea will lash out when it knows for sure the squeeze from Washington is coming once again, and will show off a weapon system that can do real damage, like a new medium or intermediate missile platform that can range US bases in the Pacific, such as Guam.

North Korea could also even show off in some way that its longer-range missiles can survive atmospheric reentry, settling the silly debate once and for all that, yes, even a third-world state like North Korea can develop missile technology from the 1950s to hit the US with a nuclear missile.

This could come in the form of a test that shows off an ICBM going deep into the Pacific Ocean and dropping a dummy warhead into the sea or something more static, but the point would be clear: US cities could be turned into nuclear fireballs within 30 minutes.

North Korea's new ICBM
North Korea’s new ICBM.

From here, what would the Biden team decide to do? Clearly with pressure off the table as a viable denuclearization strategy, the administration would find itself historically at the same crossroads as every other group of US policymakers finds itself when it comes to Pyongyang.

My hope is for as short of an escalatory period as possible followed by a push toward diplomacy coming from Washington with major prodding courtesy of the Moon government in Seoul.

If the Biden Administration can learn from its likely mistakes fast enough and pivot toward an agreement that caps the size of the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal for sanctions relief, the faster it can move to what it seems to be its more important task, figuring out what it will do about China’s rise and moves to alter the status quo in Asia to its liking.

The only question now is how many weeks or months we will waste on a pointless pressure campaign, and can we avoid an accidental escalation that could cost lives or spark a horrific war no one wants?

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North Korea responds to Biden’s criticism of ballistic-missile test, accusing administration of ‘gangster-like logic’

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Commuters watch a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Joe Biden during a news program at the Suseo Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday

  • North Korea has responded to President Joe Biden after he criticized their test of ballistic missiles.
  • Top North Korean military official Ri Pyong Chol said the Biden administration, “took the wrong first step.”
  • This week marked the first ballistic missiles tested by North Korea under the Biden administration.
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North Korea on Friday issued a scathing statement in response to President Joe Biden’s recent condemnation of North Korea’s recent missile tests.

North Korea’s state media quoted top North Korean military official Ri Pyong Chol, saying in part, “If the US continues with its thoughtless remarks without thinking of the consequences, it may be faced with something that is not good.”

“It is a gangster-like logic that it is allowable for the US to ship the strategic nuclear assets into the Korean peninsula and launch ICBMs any time it wants but not allowable for the DPRK, its belligerent party, to conduct even a test of a tactical weapon,” Ri said.

Earlier this week, the US and South Korea conducted joint military exercises, and in response, North Korea tested its first ballistic missiles under the Biden administration in the East Sea, after two smaller missiles were tested last week.

Ri said that North Korea had the “right to self-defense” and that the Biden administration “took the wrong first step.”

At his first official press conference on Thursday, Biden was asked about North Korea’s ballistic missile launch.

“We’re consulting with our allies, our partners, and there will be responses. If they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly,” Biden said. “I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”

At the press conference, Biden said that North Korea had violated UN Security Council resolutions, and NK News reported that on Friday the UNSC’s 1718 Sanctions Committee met to discuss the renewed tensions.

Separately, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the ballistic launch “undesirable.”

Denuclearization talks between the US, North Korea, and South Korea have largely been on hold since former President Donald Trump cut the Hanoi Summit short in 2019.

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North Korea’s nukes aren’t going anywhere, and the US needs to get over it

Joe Biden South Korea
Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, August 11, 2001.

  • The Biden administrations departure from Trump’s approach to North Korea is a useful change.
  • But Biden’s continued insistence on denuclearization is counterproductive, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
  • If the US sets that aside, a multitude of more practical goals become achievable.
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Observers should not mistake the absence of direct engagement between Washington and Pyongyang for disinterest in the fate of US-North Korea relations, State Department representative Ned Price said in a recent press briefing.

Price stressed that the administration’s “strategic goals” with the Kim Jong Un regime will be “focus[ed] on reducing the threat to the United States and to our allies as well as to improving the lives of the North and South Korean people. And, again, the central premise is that we remain committed to denuclearization of North Korea.”

The Biden team’s workmanlike approach is an expedient change from their predecessors’ photo-op diplomacy. But this continued insistence on denuclearization as the primary goal in US-North Korea engagement is incredibly counterproductive.

Hwasong 15 North Korean missile (ICBM)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviews a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in an undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency, November 30, 2017.

If Biden and his team are serious about making headway on their first two strategic goals – threat reduction and humanitarian gains on the Korean Peninsula – they must drop the third. For progress with North Korea, forget denuclearization.

We can do that safely for three reasons. First, as Price himself noted, “the United States, of course, remains the most powerful and strongest country in the world.” Even with nuclear weapons, North Korea’s military might is miniscule by comparison. In nuclear and conventional weaponry alike, the US advantage is overwhelming, as the Kim regime well knows.

This is not to say Pyongyang couldn’t do real damage. It could – the South Korean capital of Seoul, a city of 10 million, is only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, well within North Korea’s strike range.

But Kim is unquestionably aware of the consequences unprovoked aggression against a US ally (let alone the United States proper or our military, which has an extensive South Korean presence) would bring. He would not finish the resultant conflict in power; he might not finish it alive.

That glaringly obvious truth creates a powerful deterrence for the United States, and it is a deterrence which maintaining the nuclear status quo indefinitely will not obviate.

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Kim at what was said to be a missile test site at an undisclosed location in North Korea, May 15, 2017.

Second, Price repeats the longstanding claim that denuclearization is itself a goal. This is not – or, at least, should not be – quite correct. The proper goal is avoidance of horrific, world-changing, history-altering nuclear war.

Denuclearization is one means of accomplishing that avoidance. But it is not the only way, and the mere existence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons does not mean they will be used.

The United States is already securely coexisting with a nuclear North Korea. We are stably coexisting with other nuclear powers, too, including several (chiefly China and Russia, but also Pakistan, if conventional wisdom is correct) that are hardly reliably friendly to America.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal is of a similar strength to our own, and China boasts a far more powerful military and economy than North Korea ever could. Yet complete denuclearization of these countries is not standard US policy, not only because it is an unachievable aim for Washington but because it is not necessary to avoid nuclear war.

We can likewise avoid nuclear conflict involving North Korea without attaining denuclearization – indeed, we have done it for decades.

Finally, forgetting denuclearization for now may ultimately get us to denuclearization, and it will certainly help us toward the administration’s other two goals of de-escalation and improved quality of life for the Korean people.

Joe Biden South Korea troops
Biden, then vice president, with Joint Joint Security Area soldiers in Panmunjom, December 7, 2013.

If we set aside denuclearization – a concession Pyongyang will not make so long as it perceives any risk of forcible, US-orchestrated regime change like that in Iraq and Libya – a multitude of more practical and feasible goals become accessible to us.

Working-level diplomacy by the Biden administration could accomplish a nuclear freeze, regular inspections of Kim’s arsenal, or even some reduction of his nuclear stockpile or missile systems. It could produce, seven decades late, a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War. It could bargain for concessions from Pyongyang by offering cessation of US sanctions that harm ordinary North Koreans. It could permit expanded, Korean-directed engagement between North and South Korea, including trade and reconnection of divided families.

It could take steps toward making North Korea a far more normal country, opening the “hermit kingdom” to the global culture and economy and giving its people a shot at deprograming themselves from their government’s sadistic brainwashing. And it could ultimately lay the groundwork for a new era in North Korean foreign relations, one which might mature someday, probably long after this administration is over, into a denuclearized and even democratic Pyongyang.

None of that is possible, however, if the Biden administration insists on denuclearization now. A shortsighted demand for Kim to concede what he views as his sole guarantee against American invasion will ensure Biden leaves office just like former President Donald Trump, having moved the needle on US-North Korean relations not an inch.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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