President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to engage North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un with the dramatic personal flair favored by President Donald Trump. At the final presidential debate, he accused Trump of having “legitimized North Korea” by “talk[ing] about his good buddy, who’s a thug.” Even without a pandemic, the Biden administration wouldn’t schedule elaborate summits with Kim as Trump has done.
That is not to say Americans should expect a major shift in Korea policy. Just like Trump, Biden insists on a “denuclearized North Korea,” and if that is his demand, his plan to “empower our negotiators” in partnership with other interested nations will come to nought. Such a narrow focus would saddle Biden with an approach to Korea that is just as fruitless as Trump’s has turned out to be.
But in the early days of the Biden administration, there is still time to reset U.S.-North Korea relations for the better.
That requires recognizing the patent unattainability of the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization on which U.S. policy has focused for some time. As Pyongyang has repeatedly made clear, Kim considers a nuclear arsenal vital for regime survival. He believes surrendering his weapons would amount to inviting American invasion. Whether that’s true or not may be debatable — Trump’s selection of regime-change champions such as former National Security Adviser John Bolton certainly did not help him on this front. But the recent record of forcible, U.S.-orchestrated regime change in non-nuclear dictatorships such as Iraq and Libya makes this point non-negotiable for North Korea. Pyongyang will keep its nukes unless it somehow comes to believe it is secure against a U.S. attack.
So how do we reach that point? And until that lofty goal is reached, how do we coexist with a nuclear North Korea?
In one sense, the answer is simply to keep going. We are coexisting already, and we have survived coexistence with far more powerful nuclear adversaries in the past. The United States has the most powerful military in the world, far outpacing Pyongyang’s nuclear and conventional strength. As much as Kim believes relinquishing his nuclear arms would attract U.S. invasion, he knows just as well that conducting an unprovoked strike on the United States — or a close U.S. ally such as South Korea — would guarantee the end of his power and probably his life.
The combination of Kim’s focus on survival and the United States’ unmatched deterrence means our present state of coexistence can continue indefinitely.
First, Washington should prioritize more achievable goals pursued in working-level talks. In time, these goals can help normalize North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy. They should include an official peace treaty for the Korean War; a nuclear freeze; more open engagement between North and South Korea without U.S. interference; and removal of international sanctions that make aid to and trade with ordinary North Koreans more difficult.
Second, the United States should step back and let South Korea take the lead in dealing with its neighbor to the north. Seoul has a far greater interest than Washington in peaceful, pragmatic solutions to the problems the Kim regime presents. If war breaks out, South Korea will suffer far more than the United States. South Korean negotiators also have an advantage of cultural proximity we cannot replicate. Biden has criticized Trump’s at times hostile posture toward Seoul and has praised South Korea as the regional “lynchpin of security and prosperity.” If his high estimation is heartfelt, his administration should shift the responsibility for the Korean Peninsula’s future to South Korea.
These changes are unlikely to produce quick, unqualified wins for Washington. North Korean denuclearization may or may not ever happen, but it is extremely improbable in the next four years. Kim may well begin Biden’s term with a fresh round of provocations — weapons tests and verbal attacks — in an attempt to gain diplomatic leverage and test the new president’s reactions. If that happens, Biden shouldn’t be phased. Instead, he should forge ahead with a reset grounded in a realistic understanding of what’s feasible and a commitment to South Korean-led diplomacy and peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets. The views expressed are the author's own.