How to Conduct the Biden Administration's Korea Policy Review

How to Conduct the Biden Administration's Korea Policy Review

The way ahead is deterrence, defense, denuclearization, human rights upfront, and solving the “Korea question” (e.g., unification) with the understanding that denuclearization of the north will only happen when we resolve that “Korea question.” 

The Biden administration has embarked on a comprehensive Korean policy review. This review is critical to charting the course for the next four years for dealing with the North Korean situation in addition to managing the ROK/U.S. alliance. The Biden administration must develop a policy that takes into account the nature and objectives of the Kim family with the understanding that Kim Jong-un is conducting a political warfare strategy to achieve his objectives while the Moon administration is focused on peace at all costs.

Although an anecdote commonly attributed to Einstein says he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and use the last five minutes to develop the solution may seem quaint, the concept is sound. You would think that after seven decades we would have a thorough understanding of the nature and objectives of the Kim family regime. Based on many of the writings and strategic assumptions made by leaders in both the ROK and the U.S., it appears we could make better use of Einstein’s 55 minutes. Being that North Korea is one of the hardest targets in the world, it is necessary to spend the time and resources to conduct thorough analysis in a rigorous process to appreciate the context and understand the problem to develop feasible, acceptable, and suitable policies and strategy.

Even before administration officials have completed this comprehensive policy review, the press and pundits have jumped to speculation about Biden’s new approach and are already making recommendations that support their own views of North Korea from lifting sanctions to arms control negotiations to an end of war declaration and a peace regime. However, before policymakers and strategists can determine a new strategic approach and policy, they must re-assess the context and better understand of the North Korea problem.  

There are two critical things the Biden administration must get right. First is the fundamental strategic assumptions upon which to base policy. The second, is to ensure sufficient alignment of those assumptions with the government of the Republic of Korea so that alliance policies and strategy and be effectively coordinated. The ROK/U.S. alliance is critical to the security in the region and the protection of U.S. strategic interests.

The Moon administration has been pursuing a peace and prosperity policy based on a "Korean Peninsula of co-prosperity" and co-existence with the North. President Moon’s assumption is that Kim Jong-un shares this vision but Kim Jong-un has refused Moon’s outreach and attempts at engagement since their meeting in Pyongyang in September 2018.

First Hints of a Biden Korea Policy

Although a policy review is necessary, President Biden has already indicated his policy approach in an essay in Yonhap News on October 30, 2020, which in effect issued his commander-in-chief’s guidance. It was the only essay he published in the foreign press during the election cycle which is an indication of the importance he places on the ROK/U.S. Alliance and the North Korean problem. This excerpt encapsulates what is likely to be the direction of the new policy:

“Words matter -- and a president's words matter even more. As President, I'll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops. I'll engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula, while working to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.”

It outlines the elements of a potential new policy: A strong ROK/US Alliance based on shared interests, values, and strategy that can deter war; principled diplomacy as the main effort, with an objective of denuclearization of the north, a focus on human rights (the separated Korean Americans is a recognition of one of the many human rights challenges with North Korea), and the only political outcome that can solve the entire Korean problem: unification.

The policy review must begin with understanding what we want or need on the Korean peninsula. It must answer the question of what is the acceptable durable political arrangement that will serve, protect, and advance US and ROK/US alliance interests on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia? 

However, such an objective must not be “denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula” as was stated in Panmunjom and Singapore. This already is a problematic statement on numerous fronts because the regime’s definition of denuclearization includes the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea because their presence provides justification for and access to U.S. nuclear weapons. Fortunately, President Biden has already corrected this strategic error by stating the focus will be on the denuclearization of North Korea. Again, he has already described the political arrangement required for success. Policymakers and strategists must build on his guidance. Until denuclearization of the North occurs it is imperative to maintain the most robust alliance deterrence posture.


Assumptions are pivotal. More than any other consideration the policymakers and strategists must get the assumptions right. Diverging perceptions between leaders and policymakers in Washington and Seoul have created tensions in the alliance that need to be addressed.

The Korea watcher community is largely divided between two assumptions:

  • Advocates for engagement with the North assume that concessions and security guarantees can co-opt Kim.

  • Advocates of a harder line assume external pressure will coerce him.

There is little evidence to suggest with confidence that either of these assumptions are correct or that a policy informed by them will succeed.

There is a third assumption that a proper balance between engagement and pressure can achieve the desired strategic effects to serve our interests.  However, even this alone, without a comprehensive strategy, will be insufficient.

There is also the Moon administration's assumption that Kim Jong-un shares a vision of “inter-Korean détente” and will seek agreement for peaceful co-existence. The Moon administration in turn relies on this assumption to support his policy focused on inter-Korean peace and reconciliation or what might be called the “peace at any cost” hope. 

This assumption is contrary to what we know about the nature of the Kim family regime and its objectives.

The Moon and Biden administrations must answer two essential questions and analyze, discuss, and debate the answers to help get the assumptions about the objectives and nature of the Kim family right.

  • Do we believe that Kim Jong-un has abandoned the seven decades-old strategies of subversion, coercion-extortion (blackmail diplomacy), and use of force to achieve unification dominated by the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State in order to ensure the survival of the mafia-like crime family cult known as Kim family regime? 

  • In support of that strategy do we believe that Kim Jong-un has abandoned the objective to split the ROK/US Alliance and get US forces off the peninsula?  Has KJU given up his divide to conquer strategy - divide the alliance to conquer the ROK? 

These two questions are derived from the North Korea Constitution and the recently revised Charter of the Korean Workers Party that defines the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a revolutionary and nuclear state that must achieve unification to rid the peninsula of foreign influence and to complete the revolution begun by Kim Il-sung. Current regime propaganda continues to reinforce these ideas.  ROK and U.S. administration policymakers must determine if there is any deviation from these foundational concepts. No effective policy can be developed without taking them into account.

There is also a third question that requires an answer to better understand the nature of the Kim family regime: Who does Kim fear more: The US or the Korean people in the north? (Note it is the Korean people armed with information and knowledge of life in South Korea).  This question is important for determining the focus on an effective information and influence campaign and for developing internal pressure on the regime.

Analysis of these questions reveals that Kim Jong-un is conducting a North Korean unique form of political warfare  to “control its people and influence its neighbors.” This is the main effort of the regime’s long-term strategy to ultimately dominate the Korean peninsula to ensure the survival of the Kim family regime.

The critical point on assumptions is that the Moon and Biden administration must sufficiently align their assumptions.  The Moon administration’s naïve assumption about the nature of the regime and its objectives will be the biggest point of friction within the ROK/US alliance in the coming year. It will take leadership at the highest levels to resolve these differences.

Therefore, policymakers should consider two assumptions as outlined in a 2019 FDD monograph: Maximum Pressure 2.0: A Plan B for North Korea.  The first recognizes that Kim will give up his nuclear program only when he fears the internal pressure from the elite and the people and he concludes that the cost to him and his regime is too great because his survival is threatened from within.

The second assumption is that Kim will continue to employ a political warfare strategy based on the subversion of South Korea; coercion and extortion of the international community to gain political and economic concessions; and ultimately the use of force to unify the peninsula under the domination of the North, thereby ensuring the survival of the Kim family regime.

Reaching a consensus on these key assumptions will provide the necessary foundation to better shape new policies and a strategy.

The answers to these questions and establishing the correct assumptions should guide policymakers and strategists to an approach to solve the "Korea question" (derived from paragraph 60 of the  1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement ). These answers will lead to the only acceptable durable political arrangement to serve, protect, and advance alliance interests: A secure, stable, economically vibrant, non-nuclear Korean peninsula unified under a liberal constitutional form of government with respect for individual liberty, the rule of law, and human rights, determined by the Korean people. In short, a United Republic of Korea (UROK), which is the end outlined in President Biden’s October 30 essay.

The Current Situation in North Korea and nature of the Kim family regime

The common element linking the three key questions mentioned above is evaluating the true nature of the Kim family regime. Kim Jong-un in fact seemingly has provided the answer to this fundamental query through his latest actions. It is suffering under the “triple whammy”   of natural disasters, COVID response, and international sanctions. While Kim has made an unprecedented admission of failure of the north’s economic plans he really blames the “triple whammy” and does not accept responsibility and admit that it is his policy responses to the conditions and events that are causing the suffering of the Korean people living in the North.

Kim’s shows of military strength and advanced weapons systems during the military parades of October 10th   and January 14th likely provided important messages both to reinforce regime legitimacy domestically and of deterrence to the ROK/U.S. alliance.  However, what Kim actually revealed is that he continues to prioritize his nuclear and missile programs along with developing advanced conventional warfighting capabilities at the expense of the Korean people. 

While some international organizations blame sanctions for the suffering of the Korean people, they fail to acknowledge that it is Kim Jong-un’s policy decisions that are the cause. Kim Jong-un has successfully evaded sanctions to maintain sources of financial revenue through global illicit activities, yet he chooses to fund nuclear weapons and his military while North Korea’s economy suffers. Even the COVID 19 fight has provided Kim with the opportunity to reduce the free market activity, electronic communications, use of foreign currency, and mobility that has allowed the population to develop a level of resiliency that has served well since the “arduous march” of the great famine of 1994-1996 when as many as 2 million people may have perished. Due to COVID-19, it is possible that the conditions could deteriorate to a point more dangerous than in the 1990s.

In short, the priority is the survival of the Kim family regime through military power at the expense of the welfare of the Korean people. The issue is whether this priority can stand up to the internal pressure it has generated. Most importantly, it is this internal pressure and the regime problems that are causing him to implement even more draconian population and resources and control measures to further systemically oppress the Korean people in the north in order to protect the regime.

Until the North emerges from the current dire internal situation the regime is unlikely to engage in any negotiations. The conditions inside the North may be restraining Kim from so far conducting the expected provocations that have occurred during past administration transitions. Kim may not be in a position to exploit his blackmail in the near term but as pressure mounts, he will be forced to resort to it.

On the other hand, when Kim believes he has the situation in the North under sufficient control he may be enticed with the idea of arms control negotiations that pundits are calling for because they assume that Kim will never agree to denuclearization. However, such a negotiation process has long been something the regime desires because it plays right into the regime’s political warfare strategy, allows the regime to keep nuclear weapons, legitimizes the regime as a “nuclear power,” and puts it on a perceived “equal footing” with the U.S and other global powers and provides the tools to continue to coerce and extort the South and subvert its political system.

Pundits also call for using the Singapore summit joint statement as the start point for renewed negotiations. However, Kim Jong-un interprets the statement from his political warfare strategy perspective.  Specifically, Kim calls for the end of the U.S. hostile policy. Kim’s vision requires an end of the ROK/U.S. Alliance and the withdrawal of U.S. troops and end of extended deterrence and the nuclear umbrella over the ROK and Japan.  Furthermore, despite there being no nuclear weapons in South Korea since 1991. Kim also defines the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in the same way which requires the withdrawal of all U.S. troops because the presence of U.S. troops provides access to U.S. nuclear weapons.

The conditions inside North Korea as well as the regime’s underlying nature and objectives provide a complex situation for ROK and U.S. policymakers. However, with a thorough understanding of the challenges and the nature of the regime, the U.S. and South Korea can devise a more effective approach.

Rock Solid ROK/U.S. Alliance

There are many alliance issues that need to be addressed. Here is a summary the Biden and Moon administration must work on.  While these are beyond the scope of the administration’s specific policy review toward North Korea they are critical issues that must be addressed because failure to effectively do so will undermine any policy.

  • Operational Control (OPCON) Transition: The conditions must be met to ensure the security of the ROK.

  • Combined Exercises and Training: These are critical to maintaining military readiness as well as supporting the OPCON transition process and they cannot be negotiated away with the north.

  • U.S. Forces Korea access to training areas: This is a critical problem for maintaining the readiness of U.S. forces.

  • U.S.- China Competition and the impact the ROK/U.S. Alliance. This will continue to be a source of alliance friction.

  • Pandemic response:  This impacts not only the entire populations of both nations, but also the economies, and military readiness.

  • ROK-Japan historical enmity.  Trilateral cooperation is necessary for the security of all three countries.

  • ROK/U.S. Trade Issues: Although China is the ROK’s largest trading partner, economic relations between the ROK and U.S. are a key component of the alliance.

Regardless of the future policy direction, diplomats, military leaders, and trade and other government officials must work together to manage and where possible, resolve these issues and others. There are mechanisms and processes in place to address these issues from the Military Committee and the security consultative process to the Strategy Working Group at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Department.  However, if these issues are not sufficiently addressed a new administration policy will not achieve success because North Korea will exploit unresolved tensions between the U.S. and South Korea to further divide and isolate the allies from one another to enhance Pyongyang’s diplomatic leverage.

Addressing the “Big 5.”

Policymakers, strategists, and military planners must take a holistic approach to the broad spectrum of threats and challenges on the Korean peninsula the most important of which are these five:

   1. War – The ROK/U.S. combined military must deter, and if attacked, defend, fight, and win and then provide military support to the political solution.

    2. Regime Collapse – The alliance must prepare for the real possibility of internal instability and regime collapse and understand the conditions that might lead to collapse can lead Kim Jong-un to make the decision to go to war.  This also gives rise to a range of contingencies from “loose nukes,” to refugees, to internal civil war.  In addition, the results of both war and regime collapse could result in resistance within the north on a scale far exceeding what the U.S. experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    3. Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity - (e.g., gulags, external forced labor, separated families, etc.) The alliance must focus on human rights and a human rights upfront approach because it is a moral imperative with 25 million Koreans in the north suffering under horrendous conditions.  But it is also a national security issue because Kim Jong-un must deny human rights to ensure the survival of the Kim family regime.  While the focus on the nuclear threat enhances regime legitimacy, the focus on human rights is a threat to the Kim Family Regime and undermines domestic legitimacy.

    4. Asymmetric threats   – These include provocations, proliferation, the nuclear program, missiles, cyber, and SOF and are key to regime survival and support to blackmail diplomacy. In addition, the regime remains committed to the subversion of the  ROK as a major line of effort to support its strategy,  Finally, its global illicit activities network  (e.g., Office 39) is the lifeline for funding the “royal court economy”  of the regime. (e.g., counterfeiting to arms sales to drug trafficking).

    5. Unification - the biggest challenge and the solution   – this is what the alliance should be focused on for the long term. To reiterate: A secure, stable, economically vibrant, non-nuclear Korean peninsula unified under a liberal constitutional form of government with respect for individual liberty, the rule of law, and human rights, determined by the Korean people. In short, a United Republic of Korea (UROK).

To craft the policy and strategy policymakers must have a thorough understanding of the nature and objectives of the Kim family regime and make sound strategic assumptions that must be sufficiently aligned within the alliance. This is the foundation from which to build this administration’s policy and strategy for the Korean peninsula.

Moving forward, a key initial effort of the Biden administration should be a convening of the MOFA-State Department strategy working group to review alliance policies and strategies with a focus on assessing the fundamental assumptions upon which ROK and U.S. policies and strategies are based. As stated, the Moon Administration has been laboring under the erroneous assumption that Kim Jong-un supports President Moon’s vision of peace and reconciliation and that there can be north-South engagement on reciprocal terms.  A thorough analysis and understanding of the Kim family regime will reveal the Kim family regimes’ strategy is to use political warfare to subvert the South Korean nation and when conditions are right, and it becomes necessary, to use force to unify the peninsula under northern rule.  Basing policy and strategy on the Moon administration’s assumptions is the path to failure on the Korean peninsula. 

Also, the U.S. and the ROK/U.S. Alliance must not only deter war and be prepared for the full range of the “Big 5” contingencies that may arise, but it must also counter the regime’s political warfare strategy. This requires a superior form of political warfare that George Kennan envisioned in his 1948 memo on  'The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare.' He described this as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”  Kennan’s proposed approach can provide a framework to enact President Biden’s guidance because it calls for diplomacy, alliances, economic measures, and information and influence activities resting on a foundation of deterrence.  Such a strategic framework is necessary to implement Biden’s policy vision summarized here:

  • a strong ROK/US alliance that deters war

  • principled diplomacy that maintains the peace

  • a path to denuclearization of the north

  • a human rights upfront approach

  • An acceptable durable political arrangement that will serve, protect, and advance alliance interests: unification.

Again, there is no silver bullet solution to the North Korea problem. This is why the alliance needs to focus on the long-term solution to the security and prosperity challenges on the Korean peninsula.  That is to focus on resolving the Korean question, “the unnatural division of the peninsula.” Solving this will also eliminate the nuclear threat and end the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.  The question to ask is not what worked and what did not, but whether future actions can advance alliance interests and move in the direction of an acceptable durable political arrangement that will protect, serve, and advance U.S. and ROK/U.S. alliance interests?  

The way ahead is deterrence, defense, denuclearization, human rights upfront, and solving the “Korea question” (e.g., unification) with the understanding that denuclearization of the north will only happen when we resolve that “Korea question.” 

David Maxwell, a 30-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, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.