Biden and Yoon aligned on North Korea approach
When unveiling its North Korean policy last year, the Biden administration pledged to pursue “reasonable diplomacy”. Details remain hazy, but overall Biden’s strategy marks a return to the traditional US approach, which prioritized the importance of the alliance with South Korea while conditioning the benefits for Pyongyang on the progress towards denuclearization. US and South Korean policies will converge under new President Yoon Suk-yeol, but Pyongyang will continue to increase its nuclear and missile arsenals.
Biden’s policy is short on negotiating details. Most descriptions of Biden’s North Korean policy have been made in the administration’s early days. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has indicated that he will pursue a phased approach to arms control and disarmament in “steps and phases”. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would remain the goal, but the Biden administration would use a “A calibrated, practical and measured approach. There has been little elucidation of these terms over the past year.
Seeking to differentiate themselves from previous administrations, Biden officials explained that their policy would be “does not focus on making a big deal, nor will it rely on strategic patience”, referring to the policies of the Trump and Obama administrations. Despite claims that it would be adopt a new strategy the Administration has not yet clearly spelled out these differences. Nor did it define the parameters of an acceptable North Korean denuclearization agreement.
Biden has indicated he will revert to traditional “bottom-up” policy formulation and diplomatic outreach toward North Korea rather than the “top-down” approach to summit meetings with little preparation. Biden said he was open to meeting Kim Jong-un, but on the condition that the North Korean leader agree to reduce his nuclear weapons as well as meaningful progress in working meetings towards a detailed denuclearization agreement.
>>> Japanese-South Korean relations must improve. The United States can help.
The Biden administration has said it is ready to meet “anywhere, anytime without preconditions.” North Korea, however, has repeatedly rejected all requests for dialogue. Pyongyang said Washington must first abandon its “hostile policy”, which it defines as the abrogation of the US-South Korea alliance, the withdrawal of all US forces from the region, the end of all international sanctions and the cessation of all criticism of the regime.
The Biden administration has pledged to press North Korea harder on its human rights abuses and to use sanctions to pressure the regime. But it has yet to announce a North Korean human rights envoy and has sanctioned only a limited number of entities.
Welcome to South Korean policy changes. Newly sworn in President Yoon Suk-yeol will further align South Korea’s foreign and security policies with those of the United States. Under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, there were notable differences between Washington and Seoul regarding an end-of-war declaration, the transition of wartime operational control, North Korean policy and improved relations. South Korean-Japanese.
Despite sharp differences with President Moon on key policies, the Biden administration has tried to avoid strong public disagreements while seeking common ground. Washington and Seoul hid political differences in their May 2021 summit statement.
Yoon sees a strong alliance with Washington as the foundation of a principled approach to North Korea, resisting Chinese coercion and enabling a greater South Korean security role in the Indo-Pacific region. Yoon criticized Moon’s overly conciliatory approach to North Korea and said the age of “soothing” North Korea is over.
Yoon dismissed Moon’s proposal for an end-to-war declaration with North Korea as a meaningless gesture if not accompanied by progress in reducing the military threat from Pyongyang. Moon’s forceful advocacy and false claims that the United States was on board have caused strain in bilateral relations.
Like Biden, Yoon advocates a diplomatic overture to Pyongyang, but conditions summit meetings and the provision of benefits (including sanctions relief) on tangible, negotiated progress toward North Korean denuclearization. Both presidents refuse to offer concessions simply to induce the regime to resume diplomatic talks. Yoon also criticized Moon’s downplaying of Pyongyang’s explosive threats, human rights abuses and repeated violations of UN resolutions.
The May 2022 summit between Biden and Yoon was very successful in highlighting the strong bilateral relationship, shared values and goals, and the importance of South Korea in addressing regional challenges. The lengthy joint statement touched on a broad agenda of security, economic, technological and societal issues.
Prepare for North Korean provocations. The collapse of the 2019 US-North Korea summit in Hanoi led the Kim regime to relaunch vast missile launches, all of which violate 11 UN resolutions. Pyongyang has unveiled many new missile systems at test launches and military parades. Most of the new systems were short- and medium-range missiles, but the regime resumed ICBM launches in early 2022. To date, ICBM launches have followed very high trajectories so as not to overfly countries neighbors.
>>> Follow South Korea’s lead: How America can push back against North Korea
More flagrant North Korean violations of UN resolutions, such as a nuclear test or the launching of ICBMs over Japan, will likely trigger the resumption of combined US-South Korean bilateral military exercises and the deployment by rotation of US strategic assets on the Korean peninsula. Both actions have been scaled back since 2018, causing degradation of Allied deterrence and defense capabilities without eliciting reciprocal security or diplomatic responses from North Korea.
It is less clear whether the Biden administration will implement broader sanctions against North Koreans, Chinese and other foreign violators of UN resolutions and US laws. Successive US administrations have refrained from making full use of existing authorities to sanction the regime’s disregard for the international community and criminal activities.
The United States and its allies face common security threats from North Korea and China, but have been limited in trilateral military planning due to strained relations between South Korea and Japan. . President Yoon has pledged to improve relations with Tokyo, but the United States will need to continue to play a behind-the-scenes role in facilitating reconciliation. Washington should also coordinate with its allies to ensure that missile defenses are sufficient to counter growing North Korean missile threats.
Strong alliances are in America’s strategic interest, increasing the nation’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic capabilities. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have all taken steps to strengthen their security posture and remove friction points that hinder cooperation. North Korea will continue to pose challenges, however, as it is certain to pursue additional, potentially more provocative missile and nuclear tests.