President Joe Biden was not yet sworn in when his choice for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, threatened to create a crisis on the Korean peninsula. The latter said he was “reviewing options,” no harm there, regarding a “hard problem that has plagued administration after administration,” which well describes North Korea.
But what was he thinking? “One of the first things that we would do,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is “look at what options we have, and what can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table, as well as what other diplomatic initiatives may be possible.”
However, the “added pressure” card already has been played. Multiple times. Indeed, with the approval of the People’s Republic of China the Obama and Trump administrations increased UN sanctions in 2016 and 2017. The short-term result was a cascade of threats and maneuvers by both the North and United States as President Donald Trump spewed “fire and fury.” He later indicated that he almost took military action.
That would have been foolish, reckless, and likely murderous. The ever-militaristic Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed the danger to America of a war “over there,” but South Koreans thought very differently. The administration’s high-pressure tactics even risked triggering a North Korean preemptive strike. Pyongyang, already on edge given Washington’s predilection for imposing regime change, might mistake aggressive U.S. maneuvers and rhetoric as signaling an imminent attack.
Thankfully, Trump and Kim Jong-un used summitry to defuse their confrontation, though they proved unable to reach substantive agreement. Kim’s public attitude has since hardened: he used the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea to tag America as an enemy and showcase a long list of new weapons under development. Nevertheless, he indicated his continuing interest in diplomacy. And his report on the North’s economic failures indirectly highlighted his continuing need for sanctions relief.
Although Blinken left unclear what he plans to do—he almost certainly doesn’t know, given his very full plate and the complexity of the Korea issue—his remarks suggested that he will take some time to decide and might lead with additional economic sanctions. Since there isn’t much more North Korean commercial activity to restrict, the administration could decide to also target Chinese entities dealing with Pyongyang.
Such an approach would be far more likely to hinder than advance diplomacy.
· Due to coronavirus fears, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea essentially sanctioned itself last year, yet the regime has survived despite obvious economic hardship. With the DPRK already isolated from the world, additional U.S. or UN penalties would generate little additional pressure. In any case, Kim is unlikely to come begging to Washington. Although the North’s economic pain is substantial, as evidenced by his public comments about the government’s inability to deliver promised economic growth, he did not make an election year approach to the Trump administration. That would have offered perhaps his best hope for a favorable deal. New penalties aren’t likely to make him more pliable.
· Another round of sanctions would, however, have great symbolic impact. But of a negative character. Kim might decide that an administration drawing personnel and policies from the era of “strategic patience” and beginning with more economic war is not worth engaging. The PRC, which of late has had Pyongyang’s back, might choose to sustain the DPRK on the issue. The travails that afflicted the Kim-Trump relationship illustrate the difficulty of negotiating even when both sides are seeking an agreement. It could take months or years to recover lost ground.
· There is little reason to believe that Kim is willing to denuclearize. The dynasty never allowed popular hardship, including mass starvation in the late 1990s, to interfere with its nuclear and missile programs. Kim will surrender his nukes only if he believes security is achievable by other means. Unfortunately, he has no reason to trust the United States. Consider the willingness of successive administrations to attack non-nuclear regimes, including Libya, which had relinquished its missile and nuclear programs, and abandon prior agreements, as when President Barack Obama took out Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi and Trump dropped the nuclear deal with Iran. A new barrage of threats, whether military or economic, is more likely to increase the determination of Kim and others in the regime to hold onto a sufficient arsenal to deter the United States.
· The prospect of both delay and additional sanctions would encourage Kim to strike first, figuratively. A missile test, perhaps of the large ICBM showcased during the October military parade, would challenge the new administration to act. Kim does not want the DPRK to end up as a peripheral concern ranked well behind numerous other international problems. Nor does he want the new administration to begin negotiations by adding more sanctions. Moreover, given the poor state of U.S.-China relations, aggressive initial U.S. steps against North Korea might leave Beijing less inclined to discourage Pyongyang from delivering a sharp provocation to the new president.
· Penalizing the North and sidetracking the Trump diplomatic process would push the PRC closer to the DPRK. Pyongyang and Beijing were estranged for years. During the early years of Kim’s rule, China-backed increased sanctions, and Xi Jinping refused to even meet Kim. However, the prospect of a U.S.-North Korea deal caused Xi to heal the break, holding five summits with Kim. Today Beijing appears to be helping keep the largely isolated North afloat with food and energy aid. The PRC might increase support to counteract additional U.S. sanctions.
In short, Blinken should eschew maximalist demands, more sanctions, and excessive delay, which would greatly reduce the chance of reaching an agreement. Indeed, the result could be a policy train wreck at the administration’s start, which would be in no one’s interest.
The president’s first priority should be to forestall any North Korean escalation. Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, or another senior official—perhaps William Burns, Biden’s nominee for CIA Director, who said he was never “a critic of President Trump’s unorthodox decision to start diplomacy at the top”—should make a public statement directed at Pyongyang.
The message should indicate that the administration expects to follow up on Kim’s commitment to diplomacy. Equally important, the statement should emphasize that contact will occur sooner if the understandings reached with the Trump administration, most important, the testing moratoria, are respected. Then there would be no risk of moving backward, with new sanctions imposed. Although Pyongyang might be irritated by delay, the Biden administration should explain that undertaking a thorough review and bringing in skilled diplomats are intended to improve the likelihood that the two sides will reach an agreement. Neither government wants to suffer through another busted summit.
In the meantime, the new administration should take inexpensive steps to meet Kim’s previously stated desire to improve bilateral ties and the regional environment. Ending the ban on travel to the North would be one. Moreover, Blinken and his cohorts should develop smaller disarmament deals that could be agreed to separately but, when taken together, still would move toward denuclearization. They would demonstrate whether Kim is willing to be forthcoming with commensurate concessions.
Biden has assembled a knowledgeable foreign policy team. However, his aides, starting with Tony Blinken, must not allow their experience to get in the way of addressing North Korea. The Obama administration, from which many of them hailed, did little more than watch as the DPRK became a genuine nuclear power. The Biden administration must do better.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.