Biden Administration Gives Indication of North Korea Policy, but Questions Remain

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on April 30 that the Biden administration had completed its North Korea policy review. A Washington Post article, quoting anonymous senior officials, providing some broad parameters of the policy, but details remain sparse. The unveiling of the full policy position has been repeatedly teased as occurring in the near future. However, it might be expected to be postponed until after President Joe Biden meets with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on May 21. 

Biden officials continue to make claims of a “new course” different from those of previous administrations. However, there are only so many tools in the toolbox and only so many ways to build a policy house, so there will likely be greater continuity with previous approaches than depicted. The Biden administration’s proposed “calibrated” and “careful, modulated diplomatic approach” appears consistent with U.S. policies since the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The new Biden policy rejects then-National Security Advisor John Bolton’s “Libya model,” which required North Korea to fully denuclearize before receiving any benefits. That proposal, however, was not the only policy proposal during the Trump administration. While Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo espoused the “everything before anything” proposal, other officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Beigun, spoke of an incremental approach.

Even Bolton and Pompeo, at times, made comments indicating that there would be some U.S. sanctions relief before complete North Korean denuclearization.

The Libya Model was never a viable policy proposal. Experts advocating for complete North Korean denuclearization knew any negotiated agreement would be implemented incrementally and sequentially.

Previous statements by Biden administration officials provide additional indications as to how the policy will come out. It is encouraging that the Biden administration repeatedly emphasizes that it will maintain denuclearization as the U.S.’s strategic objective. Some outside experts and pundits advocated abandoning complete denuclearization as a goal and instead adopting an arms control approach to accept a continued North Korean nuclear arsenal at a capped or reduced level.

The Biden administration continues to emphasize retaining “complete verifiable irreversible dismantlement/denuclearization”—know as CVID—of North Korea as the U.S. policy. The terminology is consistent with that of 11 U.N. resolutions as well as U.S. law. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 declared that “it is the diplomatic strategy of the United States… to pursue diplomatic measures to achieve complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.”

The Biden administration’s maintaining of CVID—is an improvement over the Trump administration’s confusing adoption of “final fully verifiable denuclearization.” Trump administration officials claimed that terminology was the same as CVID, but never articulated why they had adopted a new term inconsistent with U.N. and U.S. legislation. The new term confused members of Congress and U.S. allies and was an unnecessary distraction.

Biden previously indicated he will return to the traditional U.S. “bottom up” approach of Republican and Democratic presidencies, which conditioned a summit meeting on significant progress by diplomats toward a denuclearization agreement. The “top down” approach of the Trump administration was no more successful than previous efforts, but did test the hypothesis that a summit meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders could resolve long-standing differences.

A Biden official quoted in the Washington Post article asserts, “We fully intend to maintain sanctions pressure while this plays out.” However, the degree to which sanctions and U.S. laws will actually be enforced remains an open question. The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all claimed strong enforcement, but held back on imposing sanctions against entities violating U.S. laws.

The Biden administration emphasized that it will return to a firmer U.S. policy against North Korean human rights violations. A tangible indication would be to appoint a special envoy for North Korea human rights issues, a congressionally mandated position which remained vacant during the four years of the Trump administration.

It remains unclear what the Biden administration would deem to be acceptable parameters of a denuclearization agreement with North Korea. But Pyongyang will not appreciate the new administration’s tough talk on denuclearization, sanctions, and human rights. The regime may respond by conducting another major provocation such as a nuclear or missile test. Doing so would put the Biden administration’s policy to an early test.

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