In mid-June North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un brought together leaders of the Workers’ Party of Korea to discuss their nation’s economic problems, particularly a growing food shortage. He also opined on the state of relations with the United States. North Koreans needed to prepare for “both dialogue and confrontation” with America, he said.
Optimistic Washington policymakers interpreted this comment as reflecting openness to diplomacy. Perhaps, but under what conditions? Talking about confrontation after the Biden administration indicated its interest in talking seems less than welcoming. Nevertheless, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan seemed hopeful, calling Kim’s remarks “an interesting signal,” while suggesting that a better response would be “to say, ‘Yes, let’s do it. Let’s sit down and begin negotiations.’.\”
While visiting Seoul, Ambassador Sung Kim, Biden’s special envoy to the North, reinforced Sullivan’s message. The former urged a meeting “anywhere, anytime without preconditions.” Alas, the message from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) appeared to be not just no, but “hell no!”
Kim’s sister, Ki Yo-jong, again played the role of the attack dog, though her comments seemed unintentionally enigmatic. “A Korean proverb says that in a dream, what counts most is to read it, not to have it,” she said in a statement. “It seems that the US may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself.”
Yo-jong also noted that “The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment.”
The betting is that Pyongyang is playing hard-to-get. And now North Korea's Foreign Minister has decarded the idea of talks dead, stating that such a move "would get us nowhere."
That may reflect two factors. One is that Kim Jong-un does not want to appear to be desperate. After all, after listening to his extensive discussion of North Korea’s economic hardship, fanned by his earlier tearful admission about failing to deliver the better life that he’d promised North Korea’s people, and more recent comments about the ongoing challenge of feeding the population, U.S. policymakers would naturally expect to extract concessions for any relaxation of sanctions to ease the DPRK’s plight.
Kim also might be attempting to assess the administration’s seriousness and longevity. After all, President Donald Trump offered the potential for an agreement but pursued the impossible dream of Libya-style instantaneous disarmament. And the status of Iran’s nuclear program showcased American inconstancy: bilateral nuclear agreement, hostile U.S. walkout, Iranian hardliners ascendent, tortured return negotiations, and future nuclear uncertainty.
Particularly noteworthy for Pyongyang is how the Iranian sanctions issue has played out. Despite the substantial relief provided by the deal, Western companies remained reluctant to invest in commercial relationships with Tehran.“Major financial institutions remain circumspect, however, hampering Iran’s re-integration into the global economy and dashing inflated public expectations of rapid economic recovery,” The Crisis Group reported in 2018. “The reasons for these delays in sanctions relief are manifold, ranging from concerns over a possible snapback, to the overall uncertainty created by the Trump administration, to internal deficiencies of the Iranian economic environment.” After leaving the agreement, Trump imposed even tougher sanctions than before.
The midterm elections are just seventeen months away and could leave the Biden administration dead in the water. Three years from now the United States will be in the midst of another presidential election. No one knows if Biden will be running or if the Republican Party will be resurgent. With the GOP vulnerable to bouts of collective madness—including the widespread belief that Trump will be reinstated as president this year—there is little that the DPRK can count on. So what should the administration do now?
Leave the Diplomatic Door Open
The administration has indicated its desire to talk. Rather than continuing to press the North, which has begun to look like begging, the president should acknowledge that the decision is up to Pyongyang and move on. Although the Korean Peninsula remains central to resolving the many issues affecting Northeast Asia, Washington could emphasize discussions with the other parties in the region, meaning the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.
Make a Standing Offer to Establish Liaison Offices and Semi-Official Relations
Contrary to the strange view that diplomatic ties are a reward, official contacts are an essential aspect of doing business with other nations. As such, it is more important to have regular communication with adversaries than friends. The Cold War would have been dramatically more dangerous had Moscow and Washington not been in contact. Beijing’s entry into the Korean War might have been forestalled had the U.S. and Chinese governments had a direct communication channel open at the time.
Empower the ROK to Deal with North Korea
President Moon Jae-in is desperate to make a deal with the North before he leaves office next year. That is a long shot, but the Biden administration should make clear that America is not going to block his efforts. That could include a specific commitment to suspend some sanctions if the two Koreas are able to reach agreement on select commercial projects, such as the revival of the Kaesong Industrial Park.
Eliminate Regulatory Barriers to Humanitarian Assistance
With even Kim discussing the possibility of food shortages in the DPRK, Washington should clear away barriers to life-saving activities carried out by non-governmental organizations. If North Korea can meet its people’s needs, then it doesn’t matter. But if outside assistance is necessary, then the West should be ready. Yet the misguided travel ban and expansive economic sanctions discourage even purely humanitarian activities.
Address China’s Strategic Concerns
U.S. policy would benefit from a more cooperative relationship with Beijing toward the North. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in no mood to grant America any freebies. Nor is the PRC’s reluctance to pressure Pyongyang surprising. China fears both a North Korean implosion as well as North Korean nuclear arsenal. And Beijing does not want to see the outcome of reunification lead to a united Korea allied with America and hosting U.S. troops on China’s border. To win the PRC’s aid will require assuaging these concerns.
Turn More Defense Responsibilities Over to the South
The United States is overburdened fiscally and no longer can afford to defend nations ranging from Europe through the Middle East to Asia. Surely its vast economic and technological advantages along with a much larger population enable Seoul to at least take over its conventional defense. If the DPRK refuses to negotiate seriously over its nuclear status, it might even make sense for South Korea to develop a countervailing arsenal.
Washington cannot force the Kim regime to negotiate. Western officials often cannot understand why Pyongyang does what it does. The problem is not that Kim or his minions are crazy. Rather, the regime’s political imperatives often are obscure, and seemingly counterproductive in dealing with the rest of the world. Indeed, most people only see through a glass into the North. It is possible that the conventional wisdom about North Korea’s most basic realities, such as whether Kim’s rule is absolute or conditional, is wrong.
Nevertheless, the United States has no choice but to remain ready to engage the North. The Rand Corporation and Asan Institute warn that Pyongyang could have two hundred nuclear weapons before the decade is out. After China intervened in the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur exclaimed: “We face an entirely new war.” With that kind of nuclear arsenal, the United States and its allies would face an entirely new adversary.
The DPRK has been a difficult and dangerous state for its entire seventy-three-year existence. There is no reason to expect that to change along with the advent of the Biden presidency. The president and his foreign policy team might hope not to think much about North Korea. But North Korea is going to be thinking about them.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.