How to get Biden moving
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
The Blue House is clearly frustrated that the Biden administration has not made an early priority of diplomacy towards North Korea. Though the State Department announced last month that there would be a “strategic review” of North Korea policy, there is no indication of the timeline for that review; nor is there a North Korea envoy in place or even rumors about who might be the North Korean envoy. Indeed, Democratic Party foreign policy experts are quietly asking not to be appointed envoy because they know that the effort will be so frustrating.
Viewed from Washington, the reasons for this hesitation to embrace a major diplomatic initiative with North Korea are obvious. Nobody believes that Kim Jong-un is serious about dismantling his nuclear weapons and nobody knows what the baseline would even be for new negotiations. Biden is unlikely to go back to the 2018 Singapore Agreement, which was fatally flawed because Kim only promised “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” so that he could demand unspecified reciprocal denuclearization measures by the United States. The Obama administration tried to get Pyongyang back to the 2005 Six Party statement on denuclearization, but Kim has since crushed that under multiple nuclear tests and a 2012 revision to the North Korean Constitution declaring nuclear weapons status. The track record for talks in the Trump administration after Singapore is also discouraging, since Steve Biegun was barely able to meet with his North Korean counterparts.
Meanwhile, there are other pressing national security issues where the Biden administration has a chance to make progress; including strategic competition with China, New Start negotiations with the Russians, and nuclear negotiations with Iran. The political advisors around Biden have good reason to worry that if he throws his scarce political capital at North Korea negotiations, he would-end up frustrated diplomatically and under attack from Republicans for going “soft” on North Korea (the fact that some of the same Republicans praised Trump for making even bigger concessions will be irrelevant…that’s politics).
As a result, Seoul is going to have to make a more compelling case for diplomatic action. These four points might help:
1. The Blue House should emphasize that it is not naïve about the prospects for diplomatic progress with Pyongyang but warn that the absence of a diplomatic process with North Korea is also risky. North Korea tested nuclear weapons within three months of the Obama administration coming to office and conducted a major missile test three weeks into the Trump administration. If for no other reason than political cover, the Biden administration needs to demonstrate it tried diplomacy with Pyongyang before it is too late.
2. Seoul also needs to clarify that the baseline and greatest emphasis in the U.S.-South Korea alliance is not diplomacy right now but defense and deterrence. The completion of the SMA negotiations and resumption of exercises should be a cause of relief and Seoul should demonstrate that it is thinking through next steps to enhance deterrence and readiness — leading with that rather than an appeal for diplomacy. Progressives always sound more credible in Washington when they lead with the stick and not the carrot.
3. Seoul can also signal it understands the U.S. geometry of diplomacy in Northeast Asia by offering a menu of high-profile trilateral measures with Japan. Any negotiation with Pyongyang will have a better chance if backed by that trilateral security relationship, which has the added benefit of incentivizing Beijing to push Pyongyang to negotiate lest the trilateral security relationship become further institutionalized at China’s expense. Many in Washington worry that Korea is beginning to “bandwagon” with China. I do not believe that is true, but what better way to disprove the argument than to strengthen ties among the three democracies. In fact, the first thing the new U.S. envoy can do is focus on trilateral coordination —a further argument for quick appointment of an envoy regardless of the prospects for progress with Pyongyang.
4. If the Blue House really wants to surprise the White House and buy credibility, it will start by offering to work with the Biden administration more on regional strategy. Rather than being “against” China, Korea can offer to work with the United States and other regional democracies “for” Asia. Two years ago, Seoul agreed to align the New Southern Strategy with the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, but if Seoul wants to demonstrate a new commitment to a free and open regional order, the Blue House will seriously consider bigger steps like coordinating infrastructure development and capacity-building with the United States, Japan and Australia and not just bilaterally with the United States. Since Britain, France, Canada and other democratic friends and allies will likely be sending ships to join maritime exercises hosted by the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India “Quad,” Korea could do the same. As a middle power, Korea should be well positioned to work alongside Canada and Australia.
This kind of proactive, realist and supportive stance would be very hard for the Biden administration to ignore. And put in this kind of context, appointment of a special envoy to kick start talks with North Korea (and before that, coordination with allies) will seem very reasonable indeed. Seoul’s approach thus far has been to ask Washington to make concessions to Pyongyang while pleading for strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis China. It has been an approach guaranteed to elicit polite but inconclusive responses.
Of course, the Blue House will have to believe in the strategic principles behind this approach. Nevertheless, arguing for engagement of North Korea in the broader context of U.S. Asia strategy is going to be far more effective in Washington than using arguments that are narrowly confined to the Korean peninsula.
It’s a big region and a big chess board.