What with all the hub-bub about our problems with China, it seems America has moved past thinking about the ever-present threat of North Korea. Although North Korea hasn’t conducted any nuclear tests since 2017, this doesn’t mean they won’t do it again in 2021 or 2022. In order to prevent a return to 2017-level tensions—when, according to Bob Woodward’s interviews with Trump, both countries came very close to war—President Joe Biden needs to move quickly.
Indeed, Biden’s North Korea policy could be the deciding factor in determining a stable East Asia or a region moving ever-closer to war. So far, Washington is not doing too well there. Despite Donald Trump’s negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, bilateral relations remain tense and zero concrete steps towards denuclearization have been made. And as North Korea’s military grows stronger by the day, Biden cannot afford to be distracted by other issues for too long. If Kim conducts another long-range missile test, the opportunity for diplomacy could be lost for good.
As far as we know, Kim is still very much in control and showing no signs of scaling down his country’s conventional and nuclear weapons arsenal. In fact, Kim showed off an array of new weapons during parades last October and in early January—among them, what is believed to be the world’s largest mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as well as a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) North Koreans are calling “the world’s strongest weapon.”
The North Korean leader also called for developing “nuclear technology to a higher level and make nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses,” and to continue pushing ahead with the “production of super-sized nuclear warheads.”
Trump’s summits and seemingly close relationship with Kim clearly didn’t change the dictator’s tune, either. Kim is still calling the United States his country’s “biggest enemy.” And, vindicating the skeptics who claimed he used the summits with America to increase his government’s international legitimacy, he’s referring to the past summits between the two countries as having “demonstrated to the world the strategic position” of North Korea.
It’s clear: the stakes are high for Biden to come up with a strong North Korea policy that’ll guide bilateral relations throughout his time in office. Biden already made a smart move by creating the position of Indo-Pacific Coordinator to better tackle issues in the region, but the administration must be careful to not let the China problem overshadow its North Korea policy.
Although China will remain at the top of the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities, it’s not the only country in East Asia deserving of the president’s full attention. It’s easy to overlook, but the Korean Peninsula is still in a state of war. It has been since 1953 after an armistice was signed to end the fighting—but the war never actually ended. It continues, and the chances of fighting breaking out on the peninsula once more are not entirely unimaginable.
It’s crucial that Biden resume working-level talks between both countries and work on establishing a consistent schedule of communications. History shows that neither maximum pressure (heavy sanctions and demanding denuclearization upfront) or maximum flexibility (love letters and summits involving state leaders) are likely to deliver desirable long-term results.
Demanding denuclearization upfront with zero concessions is never, ever going to work. Similarly, posing for photos and exchanging kind words alone will also not do the trick, as was made clear after the 2019 Hanoi Summit when the United States demanded denuclearization without offering the North Koreans any substantive concessions in return. Both sides must have something to gain—it’s Negotiating 101.
No good deal can ever be made between two parties without first establishing some level of trust. Currently, levels of trust between North Korea and the United States are practically non-existent. This is a problem. Biden must show the North Koreans that he is willing to engage with them diplomatically, but, this time, following the correct steps.
Working-level talks between both sides could begin building up trust between both countries and eventually lead to higher-level exchanges, such as in-person meetings on the sidelines of multilateral summits as well as phone calls between the two leaders.
What’s important is to follow a step-by-step approach that will result in the gradual scaling back of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic benefits, aid, or the loosening of certain sanctions, such as allowing for medical workers and U.S. nongovernmental organizations to operate more freely in North Korea. There is still room for negotiation with North Korea, but the clock is ticking. The Biden administration must begin implementing a revised North Korea policy within one hundred days. Waiting any longer could jeopardize the security and stability of the world.
Gabriela Bernal is a Young Voices contributor and a Korean affairs analyst based in Seoul, South Korea.