For Biden, the answer to North Korea is now impossible to ignore | By Christine Ahn (Winter 2021 issue)
One of the biggest foreign policy challenges the Biden administration will have to face is a nuclear-armed North Korea. Donald Trump’s personal diplomacy failed to achieve any progress on peace or denuclearization, despite his claims otherwise.
But if Biden thinks that being tougher is the answer, don’t be surprised to see ramped up tensions between the U.S. and North Korea next year. Such a scenario would be more dangerous than ever.
That’s because despite being one of the most isolated, pressured and sanctioned countries in the world, North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal continues to grow, and its intercontinental ballistic missiles may have the capability to strike anywhere on the U.S. mainland. While Pyongyang has not tested a long-range missile or nuclear weapon since the 2018 Singapore Summit, many speculate that it’s only a matter of time before they do.
Instead of waiting for that to happen, the Biden administration should take some steps now to pave the way for a diplomatic breakthrough.
To begin with, President Biden should immediately abandon the Trump administration’s failed maximum pressure campaign and acknowledge that sanctions, diplomatic isolation and threats of military action have failed. Experts increasingly recognize that continuing to demand North Korea’s unilateral disarmament at the front end of a deal is a recipe for failure.
Biden must signal to North Korea that the U.S. will honor the Singapore Declaration and is ready to engage without preconditions. His administration must take a step-by-step diplomatic process to build trust and reduce tensions. “All or nothing” demands have failed. Washington cannot realistically expect Pyongyang to unilaterally disarm before providing any sanctions relief, security guarantees or other incentives.
Most crucially, the Biden administration must tackle the root of the problem — the unresolved state of war between the U.S. and North Korea.
The continued state of war is not a mere technicality; it is the root cause of tensions and militarization on the Korean Peninsula. Formally ending the Korean War with a peace agreement is the most effective trust-building mechanism available and would fundamentally reorient the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea.
The Biden administration should also support the efforts of its ally South Korea to engage with the North by easing sanctions that impede inter-Korean cooperation, especially on humanitarian aid initiatives and family reunions.
The U.S. and South Korea should cancel military exercises in exchange for North Korea’s de facto moratorium on testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. According to a recently published research paper, U.S.-ROK joint military exercises “do not deter North Korea but, instead, provoke provocative rhetoric and actions, demonstrating that North Korea views [joint military exercises] as a serious threat to its security.
Lastly, the Biden administration would improve its chances of successful diplomacy by democratizing the process of shaping U.S. foreign policy. We need bold leaders who are willing to break from the status quo and support more peaceful, diplomatic solutions to the world’s problems rather than rely on military interventions and coercive measures like sanctions that have not only failed to achieve U.S. policy goals but have also had disastrous consequences for civilians. Specifically, the inclusion of women’s groups and civil society in peace processes have shown to improve the likelihood that an agreement will be reached and will last.
In the U.S., there is growing bipartisan consensus for a peaceful resolution to the Korean conflict. According to a 2019 poll released by Data for Progress and YouGov, 67 percent of U.S. voters support negotiating a peace agreement with North Korea. Support is highest among Republicans (76 percent), followed by independents (64 percent) and Democrats (63 percent). House Resolution 152, which calls for an official end to the Korean War and a peace agreement, has 52 cosponsors, including Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a Republican, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.).
To be sure, the task ahead of Biden’s administration will not be easy. But with the status quo having failed to achieve peace and denuclearization, and time running out for thousands of separated Korean families, it is imperative that the next U.S. administration, once and for all, end the war with North Korea.
This essay previously appeared in The Hill www.thehill.com