Editor’s note: this article is an adaptation from a policy paper written by Joshua Nezam who recently served as the national security fellow in the office of Senator Cory Gardner. This paper was originally published in the Pacific Forum and is reprinted with their permission.
The next presidential administration and Congress must think creatively about the tools at their disposal to repurpose alliances and influence international agreements – both to signal support for longstanding interests and inject fresh thinking about how to achieve common goals in an evolving regional landscape. The United States-Republic of Korea (U.S.-ROK) alliance is evidence of decades of successful policy, yet its agenda is not fit for the current era. Deterring North Korea will remain a focus of the alliance, but prioritizing denuclearization must no longer monopolize the alliance’s political capital nor paralyze its global potential. The United States and South Korea must broaden alliance initiatives to rediscover relevance in an era of multidimensional structural competition with China. This requires the Seoul and Washington to clarify how shared values translate into policy convergence in security, economy, and technology domains.
Even without a comprehensive nuclear agreement with North Korea, the near-term priority must be to revitalize the regional security architecture with South Korea and Japan while institutionalizing a process of managing tensions and capping North Korea’s most destabilizing capabilities. Movement towards a more “normal” relationship with North Korea in some areas would contribute to stability and should therefore be framed as mutually beneficial – not zero-sum. By balancing both deterrence and arms control diplomacy, Washington should aim to convince its allies that they can not only remain secure but prosper despite a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The following five policy goals should structure U.S. policy towards the Korean Peninsula for the new era: First, revitalize the foundations and broaden the scope of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Second, collaborate across government agencies to further adapt legal, diplomatic, and financial tools to deter North Korea. Third, Congress must assert its historically critical and constitutionally-mandated role in engagement with North Korea towards a sustainable peace. Fourth, pursue a deal with North Korea that reduces nuclear risks and sustains the credibility of extended deterrence to regional allies. Finally, any proximate policy goals must play a part in guiding the long-term transformation of human rights and openness North Korea.
Revitalize the Foundations, Broaden the Scope
The Joe Biden administration is conducting a review of North Korea policy, but it should conduct a review of the alliance to reassess the strategic challenges of the coming decade, determine how to meet those challenges, and cultivate the requisite political support in the executive and legislative branches of both countries. A central challenge for Seoul and Washington is to clarify how shared values translate into policy convergence in the security, economy, and technology domains. A “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” should find relevance not in loud rhetoric but in steady meaningful initiatives that advance the interests of both countries. The two must also discover how the U.S.-ROK alliance can find relevance in the Indo-Pacific region, which has become the theatre of priority for U.S. foreign and defense policy. The alliance should resist framing of joint efforts as part of an anti-China coalition, but rather articulate them as the offspring of shared principles that demonstrate concrete benefits for our two societies.
The Biden administration and Congress should build a collaborative set of export controls and trusted suppliers of technologies with national security implications. The Economic Prosperity Network that was conceived by the past administration is a good place to start. This network should help to not only prevent the leakage of critical supplies but prevent the theft of those goods deemed sensitive. South Korea is a lead exporter in integrated circuits and telecommunications technology—much of which flows into China—making South Korea a critical partner in securing industrial supply chains for critical infrastructure and technologies. Coordinating common standards in data governance, foreign finance oversight, and industrial security can stem the leakage of novel technologies from democratic nations into China. South Korean firms’ technological edge has been eroding in recent years due to brain drain and trade secret theft by Chinese competitors. In meetings with officials from South Korea, Japan, and Five Eyes partner countries, members of Congress should emphasize the importance of multilateral coordination to protect critical technologies and reduce financial risks of rerouting supply chains and developing new export controls. As the United States and China struggle to standardize and deploy 5G telecommunications technology, America can promote Samsung as the only other firm of scale to provide total end-to-end 5G solutions.
Leverage the BUILD Act’s Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to catalyze green joint infrastructure planning and investment. South Korea has an opportunity to supplement its New Southern Policy by joining the United States’ “Blue Dot Network” and investing in high-quality infrastructure across Asia. As the DFC takes shape, it should collaborate with private sector investors in democratic governments in Asia that share an interest in openness, transparency, sustainability, and compliance with international standards. The United States and allies must coordinate investment and engagement with others in the region to compete with China’s state-run Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). President Moon Jae-in’s “Green New Deal” potentially aligns well with the Asia Reassurance Initiative (ARIA)’s “Asia Edge” program, as the former invests in renewable energy technology and the latter incentivizes private sector investment in sustainable regional infrastructure with technologically advanced democratic allies. As South Korea and Japan have started to phase out coal power financing in Asia, the Biden administration has an opportunity to pivot to multilateral green energy architecture, improving both price and availability in relation to that of coal power.
Catalyze joint research, development, and deployment of new and emerging technologies. Both countries have an interest in honing their competitiveness in green and nuclear energy, telecommunications, artificial intelligence (AI), and space sectors. China’s “Made in 2025” strategy applies state support to capture greater shares of the global market’s technology sectors, posing an outsized threat to South Korea’s position as an exporter of high-end technologies. Moon’s recently announced “Digital New Deal”—coupled with new legislation in the U.S. Congress prioritizing leadership in artificial intelligence and standard setting—demonstrate growing political will in Seoul and Washington to lead the AI and autonomous systems industries. Together with allies in Seoul, Washington can employ the Multilateral Telecommunications Security Fund to collaborate on innovation and deployment strategies of interoperable Open Radio Access Networks (ORAN) networks to erode Beijing’s monopolistic vendor dependency and allow a greater number of the actors to innovate and design these technologies. By prioritizing investment in research and setting standards governing the use of AI and related critical technology, Washington and Seoul can safeguard long-term competitiveness, promote innovation, and ensure that future technologies are employed in ways that protect democratic values.
More Tools to Deter North Korea
The consensus surrounding the international sanctions regime constructed to deter North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile advances has weakened since the 2018 rapprochement. As the Biden administration reviews its approach to sanctions, it should clearly communicate the purpose of sanctions and build credible paths towards relieving them. The rationale for sectoral UNSC sanctions that comprehensively squeeze everyday market activity require re-evaluation given North Korea’s decision to suspend nearly all trade with China. The resulting humanitarian costs and growing repression of private markets run counter to U.S. interests. These sanctions serve as leverage and a tactic to conduct diplomacy; impractical diplomatic aims will distort their perceived utility and purpose. If the near-term goal is no longer denuclearization, then the United States should consider how to prevent the advance and proliferation of Pyongyang’s weapons programs without stifling the economy through wholesale sanctions. Pressure broadly applied to pressure North Korea’s socioeconomic system and without paths to relief alone carries significant trade-offs and is unlikely to achieve North Korean disarmament.
Financial tools can thwart North Korea’s import of critical inputs required for indigenous production of weapons of mass production and long-range delivery platforms. They can also create incentives to comply with internationally recognized fundamental human rights. The United States can deter criminal activity and tighten sanctions enforcement by building partner capacity to detect illicit activities in their territory, publicly documenting violations and threatening secondary sanctions of violators, and utilizing new technologies to track proliferation finance. It is important that Congress can provide the financial, intellectual, and political resources that enable a presidential administration to target and deter specific actions.
Launch a multilateral coalition to counter illicit North Korean cyber activity. The prospects of illicit DPRK cyber theft are rising due to the risks that the pandemic poses to traditional sanctions evasion activity, as well as the growing sums that are accessible via cyberspace. In the summer of 2020, four U.S. government agencies released a joint alert over the resumption of activity this year by a group of “North Korean government cyber actors” who have attempted to steal as much as $2 billion from 2014-2019. Multilateral cyber coordination should incentivize joint member-state attribution as well as industry attribution to cybercrimes to raise international and corporate awareness of illicit behavior and closes vulnerability gaps. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) introduced the bipartisan Cyber League of Indo-Pacific States (CLIPS) Act, which aimed to create an information-sharing center and cooperate on attribution and enforcement. In addition, the Department of State should work with partner nations to implement ARIA’s $100 million annual authorization to combat cyber threats and strengthen partner networks’ resilience to attacks. These resources could expand technical assistance programs run by the Department of State, including the Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) Program or the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation programs, to enable partner countries to fight proliferation finance by strengthening their regulatory and legal regimes. Congress should also highlight and condemn reported illicit actors and consider holding hearings to raise cyber awareness across the general public and the private sector.