Biden’s North Korea Policy: Time for Change

Recently, North Korea test fired its longest ballistic missile, sending it soaring over Japan, a first in almost five years. This test was followed by further two ballistic cruise missile tests which the North Korean state media called the “simulation” of a nuclear strike on Seoul. These tests have added to a long list of missiles that the country has tested this year. This unprecedented rate of testing has broken a five-year self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in favour of a much more aggressive and active nuclear stance. Earlier this year, North Korea adopted a nuclear first use policy, thus reserving the right of striking its adversaries with a nuclear warhead in case its security and state apparatus was compromised. This change in posture has invited widespread condemnation from the international community, leading to concerns regarding the peace and stability of the region and the entire world.

The recent events on the Korean Peninsula have also brought the Biden administration’s North Korea policy into question. Set with the task of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula, President Biden’s policy of following a “calibrated, practical approach” in dealing with North Korea has failed to yield positive results so far and it can be very well argued that it has in turn made denuclearisation an arduous task. The failure of the current policy framework calls for a reassessment and a move away from what has been a feature of past administrations who have tried and failed to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Deciphering Biden’s North Korea Policy

The Biden administration has followed a policy of calibration and practicality, which it differentiates from the grand bargain of the Trump administration or the strategic patience of the Obama era. There are two aspects to this policy measure: first, increasing the security of the United States and its allies in the region; and second, exploring channels of diplomacy in dealing with North Korea. The Biden administration has seemingly failed on both counts.

The United States has actively involved its allies, South Korea and Japan, into this policy framework. Consulting and collaborating with its allies in the region has been a feature of the new Biden policy. This collaboration has moved beyond negotiations and discussions into the realm of military and strategy, a feature which was rolled back in the former Trump administration.

In August 2022, the United States and South Korea began their largest joint military exercises in recent years in an effort to tighten readiness in the event of a North Korean nuclear test. Recently, the United States has also entered in a series of trilateral military exercises involving Japan and South Korea. These measures were incorporated as an attempt to amplify the United States’ presence in the region and bolster the security of its allies. However, these military drills have seemingly made the situation worse. Since the start of the military exercises, North Korea has significantly increased its missile tests, seriously jeopardising the security and stability in the region. Another objective of the drills, which was to pressure North Korea into entering negotiations on denuclearisation, has also backfired as North Korea has continued on the path of nuclear proliferation indicating the possibility of a nuclear test in the coming months.

Another aspect of Biden’s North Korea policy is exploring diplomatic advances to reach the goal of denuclearisation. Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary for the White House, has previously reflected on earlier remarks while reiterating that the United States is dedicated to the diplomatic route. However, while establishing the possibility of diplomatic advances, the United States has done little to move towards bettering relations with North Korea. While following a position similar to Obama’s lack of engagement, the Biden administration has militarily and strategically aligned with South Korea and Japan in an aggressive stance, directly contributing to North Korea’s threat perceptions. As the United States has failed to advance any concrete diplomatic ties with North Korea, strategic ties with its allies in the region have resulted in a policy rooted in retaliation and hostility rather than reconciliation and dialogue.

Continuing with such a policy runs the risk of further destabilising the North-east Asian region and creating a security dilemma for the entire world. Therefore, the current situation calls for a much awaited and strategically sound shift in the United States’ policy.

Need of the Hour

According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), North Korea has completed the preparations for a nuclear test which could materialise as early as November this year. The continued missile tests have bolstered North Korea’s nuclear delivery capabilities. A successful nuclear test can additionally help North Korea further miniaturise its nuclear warheads which can prove pivotal in building an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. Such a scenario will hugely affect the security of United States’ strategic assets in the region and those of its allies. Thus, a nuclear test has the potential to dramatically shift the geopolitics of the region, placing the entire world under the risk of a nuclear ‘Armageddon.’

This calls for a change in policy from the United States and its allies before things spiral  out of control. The policy of pressurising North Korea through military might and sanctioning has failed thus far and is unlikely to succeed given the recent geopolitical changes with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Continued sanctions and threats can only delay North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme but cannot effectively dismantle it. The closed nature of the country means that there is little pressure on North Korea’s political elite to implement economic reforms or dismantle its nuclear programme. Furthermore, given that North Korea established its nuclear programme to ensure state survival during a period of turbulence that continues to this day, the regime has a strong incentive to develop its nuclear weapons which have so far ensured regime survival through deterrence.

Hence, the need of the hour is a move away from retaliatory policies in favour of reconciliation and dialogue. A historical analysis of relations on the Korean Peninsula shows that retaliation and disengagement have failed so far, and there appears to be no hope for this policy to succeed in the near future. On the other hand, the highest points in relations with North Korea have been achieved under administrations that have actively sought to establish a peaceful order rooted in cooperation. The Sunshine Policy (1998) and the reconciliatory policies implemented by former South Korean President Moon Jae-in demonstrate that peaceful arrangements on the Korean Peninsula are possible if reconciliation and dialogue are prioritised over mistrust and coercion.

North Korea’s excessively aggressive nuclear stance is the result of its growing threat perceptions. President Biden’s policy is not so different from those that have been explored by the past administrations. The failure of punitive measures thus far shows that continuing to entertain such policies would not result in any breakthroughs and may even encourage North Korea to further advance its nuclear weapons programme. Therefore, the Biden administration must reassess its policy measures before it inevitably results in a nuclear test, risking global peace and security and leading to a point of no return in negotiating denuclearisation.

Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari is a PhD candidate at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. He is also a Non-resident James A Kelly Korea Fellow at the Pacific Forum, Hawaii, US. His research interests include Disarmament, Nuclear diplomacy, India's foreign policy, Inter-Korean relations and North Korea's nuclear policy, Environmental Security and Peace building.