Adjustments to the U.S. global strategy in accordance with the tectonic shift in global geopolitics are well underway. However, it is unclear whether similar adjustments are occurring to U.S. strategies at the regional level. It does not seem to be the case regarding the U.S. policy toward North Korea. The details of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review have not been fully disclosed. However, comments by policy-makers and in media reports on the review do not indicate that the Biden team’s approach to North Korea reflects the fundamentally new reality of intense competition between the United States and China.
Though each U.S. administration in the last three decades tried various forms of North Korea policy, they could not achieve the goal of denuclearization. Actually, as time went by, the situation got worse and worse. Thirty years ago, North Korea was at an embryonic stage in terms of nuclear development. Regional countries now view it as a de facto nuclear state with thirty to sixty nuclear warheads and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capabilities that could threaten the security of the United States. What then are the reasons for this failure? Will there be any alternative approach left to address the current, much worse situation?
Though diverse in form, most approaches of the different U.S. administrations in the last three decades were not much different in substance. These conventional approaches shared three common characteristics.
Failure to Question China’s Full Cooperation
First, they were mostly based on the assumption that China shared a common interest with the United States in denuclearizing North Korea and would fully cooperate. U.S. policy-makers tried to utilize China’s full cooperation in pressuring North Korea to denuclearize.
Contrary to the expectations of U.S. policy-makers, however, China did not cooperate much. In the initial stage of North Korea’s nuclear development in the 1990s, China mostly took a lukewarm attitude on the North Korea nuclear issue. Chinese policy-makers regarded it as a bilateral issue solely between the United States and North Korea. In the 2000s, Beijing became a little more active mainly due to the George W. Bush administration’s pressure and hosted the Six-Party Talks. Even then, Beijing limited its role to that of a third-party mediator between the United States and North Korea. Chinese policy-makers tended to underestimate North Korea’s capability to develop nuclear weapons.
As North Korea increased its nuclear stockpiles in the 2010s, China seemed to accept North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons as a fait accompli rather quickly. There was one unusual exception when Beijing responded positively to former President Donald Trump’s request to apply harsh economic sanctions against North Korea from 2017 to mid-2018. Witnessing President Trump’s strong rhetoric and threat to use force in 2017, Chinese leaders seemed to have really worried about the possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula and felt the necessity to push North Korea harder. War on the Korean Peninsula would be the last thing that Chinese president Xi Jinping might want. However, following the Singapore summit between the United States and North Korea, Beijing began to quietly loosen its economic sanctions on North Korea.
In this way, even during the period of U.S. engagement with China, China’s cooperation with the United States on North Korean issues was very limited. It was mainly because of the consistent Chinese geopolitical strategy toward the Korean Peninsula. As Mao did at the time of his decision to intervene in the Korean War in late 1950, his successors, including President Xi, have sought to maintain a buffer state in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula against the United States and its ally South Korea. So, they placed a higher priority on the stability of North Korea’s regime than its denuclearization. To avoid jeopardizing the Kim regime’s stability, they refrained from sanctioning it too hard.
The North Korean leaders, on the other hand, have recognized China’s strategic calculation and turned it to their own advantage. They pursued their nuclear program as freely as they wished with impunity. Though China participated in producing various UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea economically for its nuclear and missile programs, its implementation of those sanctions was nominal except in the period of 2017 to mid-2018.
The Korean Peninsula has uniquely experienced the geopolitical struggles among big powers in the last century and a half. The Sino-Japanese War (1894), Russo-Japanese War (1904), colonization of Korea by Japan (1910), division into two Koreas (1945), and Korean War (1950) are examples of struggle among neighboring powers that took place on the Korean Peninsula. Considering that South Korea and four important neighboring countries—the United States, China, Japan, and Russia—all have interrelated vital interests, achieving a peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear problem through multilateral cooperation is particularly desirable. However, China’s consistent geopolitical strategy of trying to maintain a buffer state in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula has been making multilateral cooperation with a closely coordinated action plan difficult.
China may want the United States to pay a very high price for its full cooperation on North Korea. It may wish the United States to make important concessions on some international issues such as the U.S.-ROK alliance, Taiwan, the South China Sea, or the East China Sea. If the United States does not wish to make that kind of Machiavellian deal with China, it may be natural for Washington to depart from the old policy assumption that China would fully cooperate. However, the U.S. government still seems to cling to that assumption instead of trying to explore a new bold approach.
Failure to Address North Korea’s Security Concerns
Second, the conventional U.S. approaches in the last three decades have tended to focus mostly on the moral aspects of North Korea’s violations of international norms and rules. As a result, they tended to minimize or disregard the ‘security dilemma’ aspect of the conundrum. By developing nuclear weapons, North Korea violated international law, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and various UN Security Council Resolutions. As a result, the United States had no other way to achieve desired behavioral changes than to apply as much pressure as possible in areas North Korea cares about more strongly, like the economy. Some even argued that regime change would be the only solution.
This view has been very powerful because it matched the moralistic and legalistic standards of the policy community and public opinion in the United States. However, the approach based on this interpretation neglected the dualistic nature of the problem. Simply put, North Korea’s nuclear problem not only has a moral dimension but also an amoral dimension of real politics. Most U.S. administrations, probably with the one exception being the Clinton administration around 2000, have focused mainly on the former aspect and adopted a coercive approach. It tended to neglect the important policy implications of the ‘security dilemma’ problem embedded in the North Korean nuclear issue.
There is a long list of historical examples showing the security dilemma aspect of North Korean provocations. Being deeply concerned about its own security, North Korea often tried to mitigate insecurity by improving its relationship with the United States before it fully developed its nuclear weapons. Each time, however, U.S. policy-makers largely discounted and disregarded North Korean leaders’ appeal to improve bilateral relations.
For instance, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the situation in North Korea was desperate. It suffered the triple shocks of an economic crisis, the weakening of its conventional military forces, and diplomatic isolation. In September 1990, Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze visited Pyongyang to inform North Korean leaders of his government’s decision to open diplomatic relations with South Korea. Shevardnadze witnessed his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Nam, retort angrily that if that happened, North Korea would develop nuclear weapons.
In New York, in the first meeting of high-level U.S. and North Korean officials that took place in January 1992, the North Korean representative Kim Yong-sun delivered the message that Kim Il-sung wanted to improve North Korea’s relations with the United States and to establish diplomatic relations. However, the United States declined North Korea’s offer. The leaders of the United States and South Korea were not ready or imaginative enough to embrace North Korea diplomatically and totally redraw the security map of the Korean Peninsula while rooting out the seeds of its nuclear program early on.
In October 1994, the United States and North Korea concluded the Geneva Agreed Framework, with North Korea agreeing to freeze the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. In the negotiation process, the North Korean side pushed the U.S. representative hard to include clauses on improving political relations between the two countries. However, this agreement could not be fully implemented due to the opposition of the conventional approach’s strong supporters in Washington, especially in Congress.
President Clinton’s policy was an exception to the conventional moralistic-coercive approach. He tried to engage North Korea diplomatically in 2000 through exchange visits of high-level officials. When Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok visited Washington in October 2000, the United States and North Korea endorsed a communiqué and promised to end their hostile relationship. However, President George W. Bush abrogated this communiqué unilaterally and declared North Korea as one of three ‘axis of evil’ states in his 2002 State of the Union Address.