A meeting of national security advisors from the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) on April 2 appears to be one of the final steps before Washington announces its new policy for the Korean Peninsula. U.S. allies and adversaries, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, are eagerly awaiting Washington’s announcement. While no one can predict what the new policy will be, its basic contours are apparent from the official statements and comments of U.S. leaders.
The heart of the administration’s new Korea policy will likely focus on implementing the relevant UN Security Council resolutions (UNSCR) to achieve North Korea’s verifiable nuclear dismantlement. The United States and its allies articulated these commitments first in the April 2 joint statement of the national security advisors: “They agreed on the imperative for full implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions by the international community, including North Korea, preventing proliferation, and cooperating to strengthen deterrence and maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
Similarly, a March 12 joint statement by leaders of America, Australia, India, and Japan—also known as the Quad—highlighted the importance of “the complete denuclearization of North Korea in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
The international community has agreed that Kim Jong-un’s malign behavior outlined in UNSCRs—from proliferation to cyberattacks to human rights violations—must stop. Thus, the implementation of the UNSCRs should be the baseline not only of the Biden administration’s new Korea policy but for all members of the UN Security Council as well as the ROK and Japan.
The national security advisers also stated on April 2 that Washington’s strategy would rest on the foundation of deterrence and defense against North Korean conventional and nuclear attack. This approach is essential to prevent Kim from dominating the peninsula and unifying it on his terms.
Likewise, during meetings last month in Japan and South Korea, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Auston affirmed that the U.S. alliance structure—particularly trilateral cooperation among Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo—is important for a successful Korea policy.
Another clue regarding the Biden administration’s policy for the Hermit Kingdom is its consistent use of the phrase “denuclearization of North Korea” to describe its long-term objective. The United States and its regional allies have long debated this phrasing. Washington and other members of the Quad prefer this wording, North and South Korea and many Korean pundits say the goal is “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
The latter phrase dates back to the 1992 North-South Agreement on Denuclearization, which pledged that neither North nor South Korea would seek nuclear weapons. Various agreements and resolutions over the past thirty years, including UNSCR 1718 and the 2018 statements at summit meetings in Panmunjom and Singapore, have also used this phrasing. Yet the “denuclearization of North Korea,” which solely references the Hermit Kingdom, is the more accurate description of what must take place on the Korean Peninsula.
This is because the ROK and the United States completed the denuclearization of the South when America withdrew tactical nuclear weapons in 1991. It is North Korea that has continued to develop weapons of mass destruction to threaten the ROK, the region, and the world. The Biden administration’s choice to use “denuclearization of North Korea” suggests the new policy’s objectives will not be complete until North Korea denuclearizes.
Kim Jong-un uses the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” as part of his demand for the end of Washington’s “hostile policy,” which he defines as the presence of U.S. troops in the region, the ROK/U.S. alliance, and Washington’s extended deterrence over South Korea and Japan. Whether witting or not, those who use this phrase are supporting the North Korean narrative, thereby providing the continued rationale for Kim Jong-un to make his various demands. Without U.S. forces, Kim believes he can successfully implement Pyongyang’s strategy, which is based on subversion, coercion, and extortion. If conditions are right, then he might even be able to achieve the regime’s strategic aim to dominate the peninsula in order to ensure its survival.
Developing the new policy and a supporting narrative around compliance with all relevant UNSCRs should end the debate about denuclearization of the North or the entire Korean Peninsula. This is because these resolutions cover the prohibition of all North Korean weapons of mass destruction to include nuclear, chemical and biological arms, ballistic missile programs, global illicit activities, and proliferation.
North Korea’s human-rights abuses are another concern. While China and Russia have prevented UNSCRs from effectively addressing human rights, individual countries and regional organizations have sanctioned the regime’s human rights abuses. Moreover, a 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry identified the comprehensive crimes against humanity conducted by Kim.
However, Kim will likely continue using the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” to mask his true motives. When he does so, the United States and the international community should respond with two messages as part of an influence campaign.
First, they should publicly explain Kim’s own hostile strategy every time the regime uses the phrase. This is in keeping with Sun Tzu’s famous dictum, “what is of supreme importance is to attack the enemy’s strategy.”
Second, they should remind the international community and North Korea that the ROK already completed denuclearization of the South back in 1991 and that there are no nuclear weapons on any southern territory. It is the North that has refused to comply with all relevant UNSCRs, and it alone must do so to complete denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula.
Critics will ask how a policy based on compliance with UNSCRs will lead to denuclearization of the North. They will say that this is in effect the same policy that has not worked since UNSCR 1718 was passed in 2006. They may very well be correct. However, what the policy will do, if consistently executed over time, is contribute to Kim Jong-un’s understanding that his policies have failed.
As long as the international focus is on full compliance with the UNSCRs, Kim cannot achieve his short-term goal of sanctions relief. Consistent application of this approach, with no backsliding, appeasement, or premature sanctions relief, is the only way to make Kim recognize that he cannot successfully execute his long con. Sanctions relief should remain off the table so long as Kim maintains his nuclear weapons, which he depends upon to ensure he remains in power and is someday able to dominate the entire Korean Peninsula.
Critics instead argue for arms control negotiations, sanctions relief in return for negotiations, an end of war declaration, acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state, and even a revitalization of the 1999 North Korean Perry Policy Review. The problem with such recommendations is that they rely on the false assumption that Pyongyang is willing to take negotiations seriously and indeed has made the strategic choice to relinquish its nuclear weapons. This has proven false numerous times.
Consequently, if the Biden administration pursues these alternative policies, the United States and its allies will hand North Korea a victory and Kim Jong-un will assuredly judge his long con, political warfare strategy, and blackmail diplomacy to be successful. He will likely double down using the seven-decades-old Kim family regime playbook of using threats, increased tensions, and provocations to gain political and economic concessions rather than participate in sincere and substantive negotiations.
This is why the new Biden policy must be built upon a thorough understanding of the nature, objectives, and strategy of the Kim family regime. The international community has stated its objectives and demands through the passage of relevant UNCSRs. It will be up to Kim to recognize that his path forward cannot be successful if it rests on a seventy-year-old fantasy that he can dominate the peninsula.
David Maxwell, a thirty-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.