How will Biden approach the problem of North Korea?
13 Nov 2020|

The inauguration of Joe Biden as president on 20 January 2021 will usher in another chapter in the United States’ fraught relations with North Korea. The Trump administration tried summit diplomacy from 2018 through to 2019, after a year of high tensions in which threats of ‘fire and fury’ and nuclear brinkmanship rose to alarming levels. The summit diplomacy—as expected—failed to reverse Pyongyang’s determination to build up its arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.

The reality is that North Korea will not, under any circumstances, denuclearise, no matter what concessions the US might offer as part of any future ‘principled diplomacy’. Biden must work on the basis that North Korea is a nuclear-weapon state in every sense of the term.

A return under Biden to the Obama administration’s approach of ‘strategic patience’ is highly unlikely, simply because it achieved nothing, and instead only gave North Korea time to develop more capable nuclear forces. Biden knows that North Korea isn’t going to stop developing new nuclear and missile capabilities. New submarine-launched ballistic missiles and road-mobile solid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles are probably high on Pyongyang’s agenda after revealing the massive liquid-fuelled Hwasong-16 ICBM at the 75th anniversary celebrations in October.

The North Koreans have called Biden a ‘rabid dog’ that should be ‘beaten to death’, so it seems unlikely that Kim Jong-un will send love letters as he supposedly did with Donald Trump. Instead, Kim is more likely to test the Biden administration with new missile tests, including the prospect of resuming tests of long-range ballistic missiles—and potentially a new nuclear test. The hope would be that Biden would respond meekly and be cowed into diplomacy that leads to concessions, with Pyongyang giving little or nothing in return.

That’s unlikely to succeed; Biden shares none of the adoration of Kim that Trump clearly developed. Instead, another North Korean long-range missile test would only prompt the Biden administration to move swiftly to reverse the erosion of the US’s relations with South Korea and strengthen the relationship with Japan, and a nuclear test would reinforce the US’s incentive to push back hard against Pyongyang.

The costs of a return to missile and nuclear testing should be clearly communicated to Pyongyang by Biden soon after his inauguration, and he should move to add substance to rhetoric by quickly strengthening US extended nuclear deterrence security guarantees to both Seoul and Tokyo. Such a step would enhance US allies’ confidence in Washington’s commitment to meet the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. It would send a clear signal to Pyongyang not to act irresponsibly.

Such a move would present its own challenges for the US. Biden is yet to formally announce his administration’s stance on nuclear forces, but strengthened extended deterrence would run counter to the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform of adopting a sole-purpose declaration posture for US nuclear forces. The US’s non-nuclear prompt-strike capabilities for pre-emptive deterrence aren’t mature enough to provide an alternative to traditional nuclear deterrence. Biden may find that the growing nuclear and missile threat posed by North Korea militates against changing the US nuclear posture prematurely.

It’s likely that with efforts by a Biden administration to strengthen extended nuclear deterrence and repair the damage done to the defence relationship with Seoul by destructive bickering over the financial aspects of hosting US forces in South Korea, Pyongyang recognises that the window for diplomatic engagement with the US is closing. The economic sanctions will remain in place, there will be no peace treaty or US withdrawal of forces, and all Kim will have left will be his nuclear stick.

For Kim, this is a trap of his own making. Rather than accept the opportunity for denuclearisation in return for the lifting of sanctions and a peace deal that could eventually see reducing tensions on the peninsula and, one day, the possibility of some form of reunification, North Korea remains defiantly unwilling to denuclearise. The US can’t give Pyongyang concessions without getting something in return.

A token gesture, such as the offer of once again closing Yongbyong made by Kim at the Hanoi summit in 2019, really amounts to trying to sell the same horse twice. It’s not a serious move towards denuclearisation. Step-by-step engagement with the US based on a real and verifiable arrangement for denuclearisation in return for US and allied economic and political engagement would be the enlightened path. That’s not going to happen, so expect a new period of increasing tensions to begin once Biden takes office.