Whether President Biden Joe Biden Two Florida school districts refusing to let students opt out of mask mandates Senate set to pass bipartisan infrastructure bill Tuesday On The Money: The key parts of Democrats’ .5T budget resolution | Job openings hit record high for third straight month MORE 's team is ready or not, North Korea soon will be knocking on its door and will force it to confront the nuclear menace that has bedeviled every administration for more than three decades.
North Korea will come with its usual mixed, even contradictory, messages. Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un South Korea says North wants sanctions lifted before restarting nuclear talks Kim’s sister rips US-South Korea drills Koreas in talks over possible summit: report MORE 's regime claims, for example, that North Korea has not had a single case of COVID-19, yet the country is more locked down than ever and Kim has likened the current food and economic crisis to the 1990s famine known as the " Arduous March ."
On North-South relations, Pyongyang last week agreed with the Moon Jae-in government in South Korea to reopen a telephone hotline. But Kim Yo Jong , Kim's younger sister, a more active governmental player in recent months, warned against reading too much into it. She said a rumored Moon-Kim meeting is " a premature hasty judgment [and that] hasty speculation and groundless interpretation will only bring despair."
Summits cannot happen, she said, while Washington and Seoul plan to resume their "hostile war exercise," even though this year's drill will be remote because of pandemic restrictions. As in 2020, it will not move forces, simply computer simulations and high-tech communications — but that's enough for Pyongyang to demand economic "compensation" for U.S.-South Korea "aggression."
Still, the female Kim's dismissive statements lacked the vitriol and bombast of her brother's past rhetoric. Economic desperation — brought on by international sanctions, the pandemic, a drought and floods — may have persuaded Pyongyang that it can obtain sanctions relief only if denuclearization talks restart.
The Kims are confident that Moon and his team will offer some economic aid as an inducement, and that they can pressure the Biden administration to do the same. North Korea's growing nuclear and missile arsenal already incentivizes Washington to talk, even if it means first making unilateral concessions wrapped in the moral comforter of humanitarian assistance.
Once talks start, Pyongyang predictably will demand further giveaways before making even the semblance of substantive progress toward denuclearization — and the North Korea nuclear problem will return to its sterile default dynamic. Without a changed U.S. strategy, the result will be tacit acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state to be "managed" rather than confronted.
After the White House completed its review of North Korea policy in April, spokesperson Jen Psaki reiterated that the administration's goal is identical to that of every U.S. administration since Pyongyang began its nuclear program in the early 1990s: "Broadly speaking, we have a clear objective as it relates to North Korea, which is denuclearizing the … Korean Peninsula."
She said Biden will try a creative approach to differentiate this president from Donald Trump Donald Trump Watchdog sues FEC for closing investigation into Rick Scott, allied super PAC Iowa man sentenced to 10 years for shooting Black teen at pro-Trump parade The SALT deduction cap makes it harder for communities to recover MORE and Barack Obama: "[O]ur policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience. … Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach."
Yet, the Biden administration would be well-advised to adopt two of the three components of the early Trump "maximum-pressure campaign": a credible threat of force, increased economic sanctions, and a sustained challenge to the Pyongyang regime's moral legitimacy.
The Trump effort in 2017-2018 clearly caught the attention of not only Kim but also Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who summoned Kim for an urgent, first-time meeting just weeks before a planned Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. After the Beijing visit, Trump said Xi told him it "went very well" — and so it did from China's perspective.
Whatever Xi's instructions were to his young junior partner, they produced a noticeable change of tone and a shift in North Korea's negotiating tactics. Pyongyang returned to its earlier harsh rhetoric, but cleverly directed it not at Trump personally, as Kim had done earlier, but at the working-level U.S. negotiating team. The goal was to separate them from the president who, they thought, was more likely to offer concessions in the hope of making a deal.
Trump welcomed Xi's assurance that Kim was looking forward to their Singapore meeting, but he tweeted , "In the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost!" Singapore did produce Kim's recommitment to North Korea's 2005 pledge to abandon "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs."
But, whether Pyongyang was more serious about that commitment than those it had made in the decade and a half before, Beijing's last-minute intervention disabused Kim of the idea. Xi knew that an actual breakthrough on North Korea's nuclear program would mean the end of the double-game China had been playing successfully with the West for 30 years.
No longer would the Chinese be able to promise their help with North Korea in exchange for U.S. concessions on trade, China's intellectual property theft and China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, and Western indulgence of its massive human rights violations.
Trump, like Biden today, expressed admiration for Xi's toughness and competence but knew that China was undermining sanctions on North Korea, such as by buying its illegal coal exports . After the breakdown of the Hanoi summit with Kim, Trump said China could ” probably do a little more ” to help with North Korea. Biden should demand that it do a lot more.
Armed with Trump's mixed experience on North Korea, Biden has an opportunity — and, given the growing urgency of the situation, an obligation — to restart the momentum Trump had going before Xi stepped in and it degenerated into a bizarre " love letters " phase.
No one, least of all Pyongyang and Beijing, would take seriously from the Biden team the kind of " fire and fury " threats Trump made against North Korea in 2017. But the other two elements of Trump's pressure strategy — multilateral sanctions and human rights focus — would meld neatly with Biden's proclaimed advantages over Trump's "America First" approach.
Biden should urge other countries to step up Trump's sanctions on the Kim regime and its elite supporters while sparing the general population and instead granting it broad-based humanitarian assistance.
The Biden administration's emphasis on human rights would be a natural follow-up to Trump's early speeches in Seoul , at the United Nations , and his 2018 State of the Union address calling the Kim regime unfit to govern. Complementing targeted sanctions, the strategy would separate the odious Pyongyang government from the victimized North Korean people.
Trump initially was on the right track with North Korea. Biden should get back to it.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA .
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