The Washington Post
Defusing the coming crisis with North Korea
We are stuck in a rut on North Korea. The absence of any forward progress on denuclearization diplomacy is the result of a unique intersection of American distraction and North Korean disinterest. Now, by test-firing two short-range ballistic missiles and a long-range cruise missile, the North Koreans have signaled that they aim to shake things up, confronting President Biden with a predicament he has so far been able to dodge. There are two paths out of it — one that the United States and its allies can control and another that they cannot.
The Biden administration has kept its North Korea policy deliberately low-key. White House press secretary Jen Psaki promised in April a policy that would avoid both Donald Trump’s made-for-tv summitry and Barack Obama’s hands-off version of “strategic patience.” No administration official has since chosen to elaborate on her vague statement. For the past few weeks, the State Department has been focused entirely on the diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, leaving little time for high-level attention on North Korea.
U.S. distraction is complemented by North Korean disinterest. Pyongyang has no interest in answering the calls for engagement from what it perceives as the lame-duck government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. A desperate economic situation, exacerbated by floods and a pandemic-induced 19-month border shutdown with China, has caused the North Korean leadership to turn inward. Meanwhile, China has done nothing to promote diplomacy. If anything, its conditioning of cooperation on North Korea with U.S. concessions in bilateral relations with Beijing means that China won’t do anything to break the stalemate.
All this explains why we haven’t seen the saber-rattling nuclear tests or megamissile launches from North Korea that we would normally expect in the first year of an American presidency. Remember when Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat huddled over reports of North Korean missile tests during dinner at Mar-a-lago only three weeks after Trump’s inauguration? Or when Obama was greeted with a rocket launch in April 2009, only to be followed by a nuclear test during his first Memorial Day weekend as president? Thus far, Biden has had to deal with none of that — despite events that usually provoke North Korea, such as a U.s.-south Korea summit (May) or U.s.-south Korea military exercises (August).
But the absence of North Korean fireworks does not mean a crisis is not brewing. Satellite imagery suggests that, as early as March, Kim Jong Un fired up the reactor that North Korea uses to make nuclear bombs. Development of longrange ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. homeland continues unabated. The tests this week suggest Kim’s ambition to become one of a handful of countries to field a nuclear cruise missile.
The usual answer to this problem is to apply more sanctions to North Korea to compel it to stop the programs. That option might make for good politics in Washington, but it is likely to have little effect. North Korea has put itself under the most stringent sanctions in its history by closing the border since January 2020 to prevent covid-19 transmission. The only answer to stemming the threat is diplomacy.
We can get to diplomacy in one of two ways. One is through crisis. North Korea appears to be laying a path to a major provocation such as another nuclear test, a long-range ballistic missile test (with multiple reentry vehicles), or a sealaunched ballistic missile test that will precipitate a spiraling near-war crisis. One hopes that diplomacy could pull us back from the brink, but there is no guarantee that things would not spiral out of control, as they did at the end of 2017 under Trump.
But there’s another option. The United States and its allies could consider negotiating some form of humanitarian assistance for North Korea to address its declining domestic situation. After all, Kim is not unlike every other leader today whose main concern is to stem covid transmission, and he’s not open to Chinese help. He has already rejected an offer of Chinese vaccines from Covax, the World Health Organization-backed initiative to distribute vaccine doses, because he does not trust them. Western humanitarian assistance, under the appropriate verification protocols, would not violate any of the current sanctions against North Korea under current United Nations Security Council resolutions and U.S. law.
Delivering vaccines or food might seem like a detour from denuclearization. But the utility of an agreement negotiated by the U.S. government in conjunction with humanitarian NGOS at this moment is broader than it appears. A humanitarian assistance agreement will address the needs of the people inside the country. It will promote alliance solidarity with the engagement-oriented South Korea. It could stave off escalating provocations, as Kim is unlikely to act out while in dialogue with the United States. Finally, an agreement reduces Chinese influence on the peninsula and just might create some momentum for further diplomacy.
If the United States is unwilling to pursue such assistance, then it can simply wait for the next nuclear test by North Korea and roll the dice in hopes that diplomacy can pull us back from the brink. But with all else that Biden needs to deal with at home, does he really need another crisis?