Joe Biden says North Korea is his top foreign policy issue. Just don’t expect him to do much about it — at least not in public.
Take this week’s fire and fury coming out of Pyongyang: a test of what U.S. military officials believe to be a new type of ballistic missile first displayed during a January military parade. Biden’s response? Business as usual.
As for the Pentagon, officials familiar with the discussions say military leaders have no immediate plans to respond or escalate — whether it’s by stepping up joint military exercises with South Korea or by raising the U.S. alert status in the region.
And while Biden said the tests violated U.N. Resolution 1718 and promised to “respond accordingly” to any escalation, he also left the door open to diplomacy.
That may be tricky, after top North Korean leaders rejected repeated outreach attempts from the Biden team, and issued fiery warnings last week urging Washington to refrain from “causing a stink.” Meanwhile, U.S. relations with China, Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner and perhaps the best hope of pressuring them into talks, are at perhaps an all-time low.
So far, tensions are not nearly as high as when then-President Donald Trump said he would rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang for threatening to strike the United States, leading to an escalatory war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that only cooled when the two met in Singapore in 2018.
By comparison, the Biden team is taking a more conventional approach. The administration is in the midst of a comprehensive review of North Korea policy, and for now at least, the Biden team is avoiding escalation while urging allies behind the scenes to step up pressure on Pyongyang.
That may be enough, former officials said.
“This is an old pattern, and although it is provocative, it is not necessarily, I think, something that warrants climbing an escalation ladder when channels of communications are nonexistent between a new administration and North Korea,” said Randy Schriver, the former top Pentagon Indo-Pacific policy official in the Trump administration.
“Beyond public statements and pointing out that it is contrary to U.N. resolutions, I think the real key is getting partners and allies on board with a pressure campaign,” Schriver said.
But there are steps the Biden team can take to send a stronger signal without resorting to military action. While the Trump administration already imposed tough sanctions on Pyongyang, the Biden administration could increase pressure on interested parties to more strictly enforce those sanctions, for instance preventing the transfer of goods to North Korean ships.
China, North Korea’s top trading partner, is a key piece of the puzzle. While the Trump administration had limited success in convincing Beijing to pressure Pyongyang, Biden’s top officials have signaled they want to reengage on that front.
“China has a critical role to play in working to convince North Korea to pursue denuclearization … it has tremendous influence, and I think it has a shared interest in making sure that we do something about North Korea’s nuclear program and about the increasingly dangerous ballistic missile program,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week during a press conference with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their counterparts in Seoul.
“I would hope that whatever happens going forward, China will use that influence effectively to work on moving North Korea to denuclearization,” Blinken said.
China and the U.S., however, are in the midst of a growing political fracture — at odds over everything from trade practices to human rights. And it’s not clear how much Beijing will want to pressure North Korea right now.
For one thing, Beijing’s communist leaders may not want to appear to be acquiescing to Washington. At the same time, by more strictly enforcing sanctions, China may deepen North Koreans’ misery, and that could mean a growing humanitarian and migration crisis on its border.
A former Trump administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said North Korea’s Kim and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have a complicated relationship marked by mistrust. But, the former official said, it appears that the two have struck an unspoken agreement: as long as North Korea avoids conducting a nuclear test or a long-range missile test, Beijing will limit its enforcement of economic sanctions.
Top American officials indicated this week that the new administration would steer away from escalating the situation.
“We do not believe that it is in our best interests to hype these things and circumstances in which we would consider those activities as part of a ‘normal’ set of a tense military environment like we see on the Korean peninsula,” one senior official told reporters.
Behind the scenes, though, the new administration is urging Japan and South Korea to confront the North Korea problem. Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs were a key topic of discussion during Blinken and Austin’s meetings in Seoul and Tokyo last week, and it is sure to come up next week when Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, hosts his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Washington.
U.S. intelligence analysts have determined the latest missile tests — of two short-range ballistic missiles that officials believe are a new type of weapon — were research and development shots, rather than a response to actions by the U.S. or South Korea, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. This is a contrast to the short-range weapons tests last weekend, which military officials linked to U.S.-South Korea military drills.
But the Pentagon does not view the latest launches as a security threat, officials said. Thursday’s test — though it violated U.N. Security Council sanctions — was seen as normal operations when it comes to North Korea, according to one of the officials.
“As always, our combined joint readiness posture remains at the highest levels,” said U.S. Forces Korea spokesperson Col. Lee Peters.
Former officials agreed with the assessment.
“I view the recent tests as a legal issue, but not a security concern,” said Eric Sayers, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. “U.S. Forces Korea and U.S. Indo-Pacom are well-positioned to deter an actual military escalation.”
The latest missile tests are Pyongyang’s “attempt to gain attention and demonstrate how far their capabilities have come” while the new administration is conducting its review, Schriver said, noting that their goal is to be recognized as a nuclear state on the world stage.
Schriver suggested the Biden team should reconstitute military exercises that were scaled down in recent years due to the Trump administration’s diplomacy efforts.
“That would do a lot more for deterrence than any diplomatic moves,” he said.
However, experts agree that the new administration should not expect Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal easily — something the Biden team has said would be a condition of negotiations. In fact, North Korea has not responded to multiple outreach attempts from the new administration.
“They should have realistic expectations about how quickly that could be accomplished,” Schriver said. “I would rather see North Korea feel pressure for some period of time before we try diplomacy again.”
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