The United States Department of Defense is looking to support the Biden administration’s diplomacy-focused North Korea policy through improvements to missile defense capabilities.
The Biden administration recently completed its North Korea policy review and has since revealed limited details of its new North Korea policy. The administration will pursue a “calibrated, practical approach” towards North Korea that aims to achieve “practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and deployed forces.” The policy has been described as employing a step-by-step approach to denuclearization built around partial North Korean steps towards denuclearization in exchange for partial sanctions relief, and as such it will necessarily involve a heavy focus on diplomacy with North Korea.
According to the Pentagon, diplomacy with North Korea remains essential. Following the announcement of the Biden administration’s new North Korea policy, a Department of Defense spokesperson commented that DoD fully supported the administration’s phased approach to diplomacy with North Korea.
The administration’s focus on diplomacy does not completely relegate the Pentagon to the sidelines when it comes to North Korea, however. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has confirmed that the United States will place diplomacy with North Korea first, but has also said that an effective military deterrent remains essential for supporting diplomatic efforts. Maintaining a strong military deterrent will allow the Pentagon to support diplomacy with North Korea by denying it the ability to strengthen its diplomatic hand or position through the use of military force or coercion.
The Pentagon’s efforts to support U.S. diplomacy with North Korea by maintaining an effective military deterrent will likely heavily revolve around efforts to improve missile defense capabilities. North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities have steadily improved in recent years, with U.S. military officials commenting that such improvements necessitate corresponding improvements in U.S. ballistic missile defenses.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described North Korea as posing a “real danger” to the United States and its allies in light of its growing ballistic missile capabilities. Lieutenant General Daniel L. Karbler, commander of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, has similarly pointed to North Korea’s efforts to improve the “survivability, lethality, and diversification” of its missile forces as evidence of the United States’ need for improved missile defense capabilities.
The Pentagon’s efforts to support diplomacy with North Korea by bolstering U.S. missile defense capabilities will likely include both continued investments into improved Ground-based Interceptors at home, along with improvements to missile defenses deployed in South Korea including the integration of Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense systems.
Eli Fuhrman is a contributing writer for The National Interest.