Joe Biden's Real North Korea Problem: Moving Past Denuclearization | Opinion

There's one question that every national security expert is pondering these days: what will Joe Biden's foreign policy playbook look like when he takes the oath of office on January 20th?

When it comes to North Korea, Biden could simply decide to replicate the failed policies of the past—policies championed by Democrats and Republicans alike. That means more failed sanctions, more pressure coupled with the hope China can somehow bring Pyongyang to heel. And if that is the case, 2021 could be another year of missile and nuclear tests, threats of war followed by promises of talks that go nowhere.

The reason for this all-too-predictable spiral of tensions is simple—whether we want to admit it or not. Washington is obsessed with a single goal: the dead dream of North Korean denuclearization.

The Kim regime has only one measurable achievement in its seven decades of existence: the development of atomic arms and the missiles to carry them to the U.S. Here in Washington, we are unable to admit the obvious, that at least in the short-to-medium term, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, the only tool it has to deter Washington in a crisis.

This inability to admit what is right before our eyes has condemned the world to a more than thirty-year cycle of threats, escalations, sanctions and talks that has not made any of the parties safer. The dark days of 2017 should be a lesson to all of us that this dangerous pattern must end, as each new crisis brings the world closer to armed conflict and perhaps nuclear war.

At its core, while the goal of denuclearization is a worthy one, it is more fitted for 1990 than 2020. Now is the time to shift our strategy from the elimination of North Korea's nuclear program to ensuring it does not get any bigger and that its secrets are not sold to the highest bidder. Denuclearization should not be completely abandoned, but considered aspirational, something to strive for in the future.

Pyongyang's nukes clearly are not Joe Biden's only problem abroad or at home. Team Biden will not have much bandwidth to deal with anything related to foreign affairs for at least the first six to nine months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A retired CDC official explained to me he believes Biden could be facing 500,000-plus coronavirus cases per day in the U.S. when he takes the oath of office. Whatever time Biden has left beyond the pandemic will be devoted to economic recovery. That means Korea will be at least a distant third or fourth on his plate.

With all that said, I would offer a modest, sustainable strategy towards North Korea, one that can ramp up as Biden has more bandwidth to disincentivize Pyongyang from trying any provocative actions early next year—like an ICBM or nuclear test.

Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) and US President Donald Trump meet on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty

First, in the next few weeks, before North Korea's Eighth Party Congress, Biden should state publicly he will not tear down what Trump did with North Korea but build on it. That means reaffirming the Singapore Declaration but also the spirit of negotiations and dialogue. Biden has the opportunity right now to shape Kim's potential perspective on Washington in the years to come—with just a few very simple comments. Yes, Biden will have his own style different from Trump's, but he should build on what his predecessor did.

As for the U.S.-South Korea alliance, Biden should signal right after taking the oath of office that he would consider an alliance cost-sharing agreement with increases from the South Korean side tied to global inflation for five years. No more talk about Seoul not paying its fair share or vague threats of U.S. troop withdrawal, as South Korea is clearly one U.S. ally that invests in its own defense—spending billions of dollars on America's best military equipment like F-35 planes.

Biden has stated he is not as interested in high-profile summits as he is in working-level talks that have more achievable goals. He must consider who his negotiators will ultimately face across the table. Once he has taken the oath of office, Biden should ask North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to appoint his sister, Kim Yo-jong, as envoy to the United States. With the selection of Kim's sister we know we are dealing with an interlocutor who has Kim's trust and can speak on his behalf—not a powerless lackey who can only read talking points, but someone who can make real concessions and negotiate.

What comes next is the hard part. Biden will need to pivot his North Korea strategy away from denuclearization. That would mean beginning to talk less about Pyongyang's nukes and more about seeing a North Korea at peace with its neighbors, refraining from provocative behavior and becoming less of a threat to the international community. Biden should look to trade actual concessions for actual concessions, and that means sanctions relief for any move the DPRK makes towards lessening tensions—not just giving up nukes.

As for what a deal with North Korea could look like, we need to focus first on crafting conditions for sustainable peace as well as sustainable diplomacy and a normalization of ties. Only then can we leverage the trust we have built for the hard negotiations to come. Therefore, a peace declaration ending the Korean War should be the very first agenda item, leading to liaison offices or even full diplomatic relations.

From that point, we should look for ways to lessen military tensions overall—and not just concerning nuclear weapons. For example, the U.S. could build on the 2018 forces agreement concluded by Kim and South Korean president Moon and try to dramatically reduce overall force levels along the DMZ. We should be talking troop levels, armaments, artillery pieces pointed at Seoul, and more. And yes, at some point, we can talk about dropping U.S. troop levels on the Korean Peninsula.

Finally, after all of that, we should start talking about nuclear weapons and missiles. First, we need to have a fully codified missile and nuclear weapons testing ban. Then we need to work on a verified fissile material production ban followed by a capping of North Korean nuclear warheads and missiles.

Clearly none of this will be easy. It will require likely years of negotiation, tough discussions, ups and downs and surely some drama—this is North Korea we are talking about, after all. But if Joe Biden can finally give up on the siren song of denuclearization and embrace the art of the possible, he might just achieve something historic.

Harry Kazianis is Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a Contributing Editor for 19FortyFive.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.