Nearly four years ago, when President-elect Donald Trump was busy spending his days interviewing potential cabinet officers and preparing for a life in the lonely White House, outgoing President Barack Obama delivered a stern message to his successor: if you’re going to focus on anything, focus on North Korea. The reclusive East Asian state, in Obama’s view, was the top U.S. foreign policy priority. Obama had a reason to feel this way; his policy of strategic patience, best defined as solidifying U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan and enveloping Pyongyang with economic sanctions, produced nothing more than additional North Korean nuclear modernization and missile tests. Obama came into office in 2009 promising to work with traditional U.S. allies who were willing to unclench their fists. He closed out his second term with the North Korean nuclear problem more intractable than when he came in.
While it would be premature to assume that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will wipe the floor with Trump this November (as Trump demonstrated in 2016, there is nothing predictable about politics), it would also be a dereliction of duty if Biden’s campaign wasn’t churning out internal policy papers in anticipation of a Biden administration. And in those churning sessions, North Korea will yet again be a big-ticket item.
There is a wide plethora of scenarios for what a Joe Biden policy on North Korea could look like. Seasoned analysts ranging from Harvard’s Joseph Nye and former negotiator Joseph DeTrani to the Rand Corporation’s Bruce Bennett and Soo Kim have all given their predictions about what the former vice president may do to deal with a problem his former boss, Obama, didn’t have much luck in tackling. But there is a big difference between what Biden could do and what he should do—just because he could theoretically level the Yongbyon nuclear complex with a few B-2s doesn’t mean he should (no option, particularly this one, is cost-free).
Any Biden North Korea policy should start with these three concepts:
1. Be realistic
Incoming presidents tend to believe they have a unique combination of smarts, ability, and gravitas to solve the North Korean nuclear issue. Obama and Trump, while polar opposites in many ways, both came into the office believing they each possessed the unique capability to do what their predecessors couldn’t: persuade the Kim regime, through the right mix of carrots and sticks, to denuclearize. Both found out the hard way that achieving denuclearization isn’t as easy as piling on the sanctions and waiting for North Korean officials to come crawling to the table.
U.S. intelligence estimates peg North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal at approximately 60 warheads (maybe more). No country in history has ever constructed a nuclear weapons program from the ground up, only for that very same country to trade those nuclear weapons away for economic and political concessions. To believe a country like North Korea would be the first to do so is inconceivable and ignores the strategic importance the Kim dynasty attaches to its nuclear deterrent. Biden and his advisers, therefore, will need to keep a level head about what they can actually accomplish with a country as paranoid about its security and survival as North Korea is. There aren’t any quick fixes, nor is it likely a grand bargain is available. Indeed, there may not even be a definitive solution. The best Washington may have to settle for is managing the problem over the short to medium term. Going too far with demands and proceeding too fast will push the North Koreans further away from any compromise and make management more difficult.
2. Let South Korea take the lead:
Washington and Seoul frequently tout the U.S.-South Korea alliance as an “ironclad” relationship. But that tacky phrase papers over a elemental truth: while the two nations would like nothing more than to watch as North Korea denuclearizes and peace blossoms across the Korean Peninsula, both have vastly different strategies for how to turn those dreams into reality. This divergence, in turn, has not only created tension within the bilateral U.S.-South Korea relationship but actually serves as a chief obstacle to progress.
If South Korea’s approach can best be described as patient and methodical, U.S. tactics are precisely the opposite. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his administration have long been of the belief that denuclearization is not feasible so long as hostility and mistrust continue to dominate the discourse. The deep-rooted hostility, however, can only be turned around by chipping away at it. This is why the Moon administration has been intensely focused on its pro-peace agenda with the North, one that includes more extensive inter-Korean relationships on everything from health and infrastructure to economics and diplomacy.
Unfortunately, Washington has tied Seoul’s peace policy down by linking progress on inter-Korean relations with measurable progress on denuclearization. In other words, in Washington’s mind, all of the inter-Korean initiatives in the world won’t mean very much if Kim Jong-un is unable or unwilling to demonstrate sincerity on the elimination of his nuclear weapons deterrent. By leveraging its veto power on the U.N. Security Council and its diabolically complicated secondary sanctions regime on Pyongyang, Washington effectively holds a break over South Korea’s own policy towards the North.
A hypothetical Biden administration should remove that veto and give the South Korean government the flexibility to actually pursue the joint economic and infrastructure projects that will lessen the antagonism between the Koreas and, one hopes, improve the overall atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula. Because Pyongyang is deeply skeptical about what Seoul can achieve on its own, a Biden administration should publish an official White House statement signed by Biden himself expressing Washington’s support of the effort in clear and unequivocal terms.
3. Don’t bank on China:
During the 2020 Democratic presidential debates, then-candidate Biden expressed his intention to bring “enormous pressure” on China to help the United States on its denuclearization push against the North. The logic here is straightforward: since China accounts for approximately 90% of North Korea’s overall trade, getting Beijing on Washington’s side would put such a squeeze on Pyongyang’s finances that Kim won’t be able to hold out for much longer.
Relying on Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing, however, is the very definition of naive. Beijing’s record on sanctions compliance can be described charitably as uneven and undependable. Chinese fishing trawlers are violating U.N. sanctions as we speak. North Korean coal continues to make its way into Chinese ports. Fuel continues to be delivered to the North through a series of transfers between ships that purposely turn off their geolocation trackers. Last December, China actually lobbied the Security Council to loosen U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
U.S.-China relations are now at their most adversarial since the very establishment of diplomatic relations over 40 years ago. The fact is that China has no reason to do the United States a favor, especially on a high-profile foreign policy issue. Unless some miraculous, unforeseen event occurs that turns the U.S.-China relationship around, these dynamics are not likely to change regardless of who the next President of the United States is.
If Joe Biden has the privilege to represent the American people, he will take the oath of office in January clutching a policy agenda as long as a five-year-old’s Christmas wishlist. Scratching North Korea off the list will require a willingness from the Biden administration to go beyond the conventional, cookie-cutter blueprint that has dominated Washington's North Korea policy for the last three decades.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to the National Interest.