Biden's Policy on North Korea Should be Prudent Dialogue—Not Sanctions | Opinion

Joe Biden's first order of business upon claiming the big chair in the Oval Office will be none other than getting a vicious, all-consuming coronavirus pandemic under some degree of control. His job gets more difficult as the days pass; the United States has averaged approximately 160,000 daily cases over the last week, a number that will surely go up during the holiday season.

But sooner or later, Biden will have to look beyond America's shores and deal with the tricky world as it is—and that means eventually dealing with North Korea, a pernicious problem that has bedeviled U.S. administrations as far back as the Korean War.

Biden didn't say much about the North Korea issue during the presidential campaign. When the topic did come up for discussion, the former vice president largely stuck to the script: hammer President Donald Trump for his summitry with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; point out that Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal has actually grown in number during Trump's tenure; and briefly explain how he would tackle the file. Biden's approach is essentially the same conventional paradigm that has driven U.S. policy on North Korea since the early 1990's—tighten the financial pressure, strengthen U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan, and try to convince China that complying with U.N. Security Council Resolutions against the North is in its own national security interest. As Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for Secretary of State, told CBS News last September, "We have to work closely with allies like South Korea and Japan and press China to build genuine economic pressure to squeeze North Korea to get it to the negotiating table."

What Biden and his national security team have not explained, however, is why they are convinced that this combination would succeed any more than it has in the past. North Korea is about as unwilling to give up its nuclear weapons deterrent today as it was ten years ago. Indeed, the uncomfortable reality is that the denuclearization horse has left the barn. Whether the U.S. likes it or not, North Korea will continue to be a de-facto nuclear weapons state for the foreseeable future—and no amount of sanctions or military threats is likely to force Pyongyang to reassess.

Some will call this conclusion defeatist. Others, particularly in the arms control community, view a nuclear-armed North Korea (not to mention the way the North acquired those nuclear weapons, in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions) as a danger to their goal of a nuclear-weapons free world. The widespread sentiment on Capitol Hill is that North Korea can't be trusted with nukes, either because the Kim regime's command-and-control system is questionable or because the regime itself is itching to use them.

These concerns, however, don't hold up to scrutiny. While it's true that the Kim regime's decision-making process is shrouded in mystery to most outsiders, this calls for more engagement between U.S. and North Korean officials—not less. Washington can improve its understanding of the North's nuclear program if it starts to treat dialogue as a necessary ingredient of responsible statecraft rather than a reward for bad behavior. Simply isolating the North Koreans diplomatically serves no purpose other than to perpetuate a stalemate and drag out failure. In fact, a continuation of the U.S. maximum pressure further poisons the atmosphere and ruins whatever slim opportunity Washington has to enhance its knowledge of the North's nuclear weapons systems.

For the United States, the Kim regime is easy to demonize and poke fun at. To most Americans, the entire country looks like one giant cult, where millions of people clap in synchronized unison and cry with overwhelming joy whenever Kim Jong-un steps up to a podium. North Korea, a construct of the former Soviet Union, looks like a place where modern technology and economic prosperity go to die.

Yet while North Korea is often described as unpredictable or excessively reckless, the country's elite has proven itself to be quite rational in terms of understanding where the lines are. Without a doubt, Kim Jong-un is a stern, unapologetic brute in terms of consolidating his own power. He doesn't take chances with his own security and is quick to squelch any rival power-center that may bubble up. This is the same Kim, after all, who assassinated his own uncle and half-brother and who is more than willing to order a deaths sentence if somebody slacks in his or her duties.

But at no point in his decade-long tenure has Kim demonstrated his intention to actually use the nuclear weapons he and his father, Kim Jong-il, developed at great cost to its economic bottom-line. The reason for this is pretty simple: tossing a nuclear-tipped missile towards the U.S. mainland, South Korea or Japan would produce a campaign of military retaliation against the North so powerful and unforgiving that it would very likely end in the total annihilation of the Kim family dynasty. For a man like Kim Jong-un who cares about preserving his unchallenged status atop the North Korean hierarchy, it's hard to envision how launching a war against a superpower is smart policy.

The lesson for U.S. policy is quite clear: as nutty as North Korea may appear to outsiders, the country can be deterred over the long-haul. And importantly, deterrence provides the United States with time to explore realistic and achievable diplomatic arrangements, including some kind of arms control agreement that at least stops further development of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and provides some additional clarity over it.

North Korea may be considered a U.S. adversary, but that status shouldn't lock out prudent dialogue as an option. Rather than squeezing Pyongyang with even more economic pressure and snubbing its nose at diplomacy until the North meets series of preconditions, the United States should be confident enough to open up durable channels of communication in order to ensure tension doesn't permanently sour bilateral relations. The Biden administration may go as far as to exchange liaison officers with the North, a low-cost, common-sense action that would kickstart a more normal and less tension-prone U.S.-North Korea relationship.

The Washington foreign policy establishment will take a quick glimpse at these recommendations and scream "appeasement!" at the top of their lungs. But given the fact that the Washington foreign policy establishment has utterly and completely failed on North Korea policy over the last three decades, Joe Biden would be best served by ignoring those grumblings.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

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