Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Biden’s North Korea Policy

North Korea started the year 2022 with literally a ‘bang’ as a spree of missile launches were conducted including an intermediate range ballistic missile, two long range cruise missiles, an upgraded long range cruise missile, two hypersonic missiles, tactically guided missiles as well as the development of a railway borne missile launch vehicle.

In the words of Supreme leader Kim Jong-un, weapons proliferation is a crucial step in strengthening national defense against “US imperialists and their vassals”. At this juncture, reassessing the Biden administration’s policy towards North Korea becomes crucial.

How grave is the situation?

These events mark North Korea’s biggest launch since the launch of Hwasong-15 in  2017. The missiles are not just highly precise with the ability to hit low altitude targets at a speed five times that of sound, but are also highly lethal.

Apart from destabilizing the region, it also poses a direct and serious threat to South Korea and Japan, whom Kim considers Washington’s vassals.

Though Kim Jong-un has not attended any of the tests, he visited an unspecified munitions factory which is said to be producing a “major weapon system”.  Pyongyang’s official news agency KCNA stated that North Korea would restart all of its “temporarily abandoned activities”, indicative of nuclear tests which have been under a self-imposed embargo since 2017. Furthermore, Kim presided over a Politburo meeting of his Workers’ Party of Korea where he called for “immediately bolstering” of military capabilities.

There are apprehensions by North Korean watchers that the worst is yet to come as the Workers’ Party of Korea prepares to celebrate the 80th and 110th birth anniversaries of Kim Jong-il and Kim il-Sung respectively on Feb. 16 and April 15 respectively which might see an ICBM test. Ten years back, Kim Jong-un marked his grandfather Kim il-Sung’s 100th anniversary by launching the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.

An utter fiasco

With a year in office, President Biden’s foreign policy has been exposed to criticism on several fronts. From supporting growing aggression of the Israeli forces against Palestinians to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, he has drawn flak from Conservatives and Liberals alike.

With all focus being on China and Russia, North Korea has largely been on the Biden administration’s blind spot. There has not been any widespread discussion apart from a policy review in April 2021, the details of which have not been revealed.

American military presence in South Korea and sanctions on the DPRK have been the major issues of contention between the United States and North Korea since the 1980s when US satellites revealed images of nuclear arms development in the North. While the United States has been adamant that North denuclearizes before sanctions could be lifted, North Korea wants sanctions to be lifted before any talk on denuclearization could materialize. It also expects the United States to commit itself to denuclearization.

In his address on completing 100 days in administration, Biden mentioned North Korea briefly in reference with Iran calling their nuclear proliferation programs a “serious threat” which would be dealt “through diplomacy”.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki revealed in a briefing that the prime goal remains denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The administration recognized the failure of the past four administrations in addressing the issue. The policy calls for a “calibrated, practical approach”  without resorting to either “strategic patience” of the Obama era or “grand bargain” of the Trump era.

The DPRK responded to the policy by claiming that the United States would face a “worse and worse crisis beyond control” if it does not abandon its “Cold War mindset and perspective”.

President Biden expressed his readiness to negotiate with North Korea “anytime, anywhere” but sadly this promise failed to materialize as neither did the United States make any serious or concerted effort to negotiate nor did Kim Jong-un show any willingness to talk.

Moreover, Biden has shown no interest in reviewing, let alone reviving, the 2019  Hanoi Summit between his predecessor Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un which broke down over the issue of lifting sanctions and complete denuclearization.

What explains the aggression?

The growing aggression on part of North Korea shows its willingness to get the United States to negotiate with it on its own terms. Several factors drive such developments.

Crippling economy

The North Korean economy is at its lowest post the Coronavirus pandemic when the 0.4% growth rate achieved in 2019 was reversed.

South Korea’s Central bank, the Bank of Korea (BOK) publishes the most reliable data on the North Korean economy. The BOK reported that Pyongyang’s GDP contracted by 4.5% in 2020 while industrial output declined from 28% to 5.9% and agricultural output, fisheries and forestry sector  declined by 7.6%.

No bread to eat

North Korea is at the cusp of probably the worst food crisis in its history. Before the pandemic, 40% of the population was said to be suffering from hunger and  malnourishment.

As per UN reports, the situation has worsened after Pyongyang closed down its borders and all international trade to safeguard itself from the virus. Many lost their jobs and over 60% live in absolute poverty.

In April 2021, Kim indicated the worsening situation by calling the citizens to “prepare for another Arduous March” , referring to the long period of recurring natural calamities, famine and food crisis of the 1990s.

The strict lockdown led to a sharp fall in foreign trade, leading to a massive price hike in fuel and food commodities.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 68% of an average North Korean’s diet is composed of cereals, tubers and roots, none of which were imported last year from China, which constitutes 90% of Pyongyang’s international trade. The FAO also reported that the food shortage amounted to 860,000 tonnes in 2021. 

A decade in power

The year 2022 will mark Kim Jong-un’s first decade in power. The Party propaganda machinery has already made preparations for his “Ten Years of Great Revolutionary Leadership”. Unlike his grandfather and father who preceded him, Kim has neither  theoretical nor military achievements to crown himself. He was first revealed to the public as Kim Jong-il’s successor and has no recorded contribution in terms of grassroots Party work or military service. Pressurizing the United States and its allies to negotiate with Pyongyang on its own terms would not only help the regime in rebuilding its legitimacy to rule at its weakest phase but would also craft Kim as a strongman.  Though popular opinions do not command changes in authoritarian regimes to the extent they do in democracies, all regimes regardless of their nature sustain on public support and hence, seek ways to recraft regime legitimacy.

Elections down South

A major factor often overlooked is the upcoming Presidential elections in South Korea. The incumbent President Moon Jae-in has been an ardent believer in resolving the bilateral issues through diplomacy as depicted in his “Moonshine Policy”, which drew flak from Conservatives who blamed him for ‘appeasing’ North Korea.

Though Moon cannot contest the upcoming elections owing to the South Korean Constitutional provision which restricts Presidency to a single term of five years, his Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung has promised to continue exploring diplomatic relations with the North albeit with less concessions. However, if the Conservative People Power Party candidate Yoon Seok-yeol comes to power, stern action against Pyongyang is expected as Yoon supports the idea of a “preemptive strike” against the North.

The growing aggression can also be seen as an attempt of the North Korean regime to scare away any attempt by a future Conservative government of joining hands with the US and attacking it. 

Hostile Japan

Following his predecessor Suga Yoshihide’s stance, Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is also hostile towards North Korea’s growing aggression. In a 90 minute virtual meeting with Biden on Jan. 21, Kishida discussed security concerns over Pyongyang’s missile tests and affirmed to work closer with Washington.

How has the United States responded?

The United States has responded sternly with the US Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby labeling the tests “destabilizing”, asking North Korea to “stop these provocations”.

Washington has imposed fresh sanctions against eight individuals alleged to be participating in developing and obtaining equipment for the weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has responded by stating that the worst is yet to come.

Do sanctions help?

Though sanctions imposed by both the United States and the United Nations have undoubtedly slowed the process of nuclear proliferation in North Korea, it has not been able to stop it altogether. On the contrary, it has further emboldened the regime to justify the proliferation to its citizens in the name of the looming threat of a much advanced power. It has dangerously translated into nuclear nationalism

The human cost of sanctions is immense. As per the 2019  UN Needs and Priorities Report, humanitarian aid and medical supplies to pregnant women and persons with disabilities was completely blocked or delayed by ten months due to the sanctions. Delayed supplies have also resulted in Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) and Vitamin A deficiency among children under 5 years of age. It has also affected the operations of UN aid agencies which leads to loss of life to diarrhoea and parasitic diseases. Of 703 deaths recorded in 2018, 95 can be attributed to delays in exemption approvals from the UN Sanctions Committee for the delivery of water purification equipment. 

The way ahead

The Biden administration’s current North Korea policy leaves Washington swinging between the Devil and the Deep Blue sea. While on one hand, the United States leads itself and the world into an extremely dangerous situation by keeping North Korea on its blindspot, on the other, slapping Pyongyang with mindless sanctions unaccompanied by any negotiations not just emboldens Kim’s regime to craft its legitimacy among North Koreans by furthering the external threat narrative and playing the victim card but also leads to the loss of hundreds of innocent civilian lives in North Korea.

Ignoring Pyongyang and criticizing it from a distance is no more an option, for it would only lead to more aggravated responses from North Korea to assert its importance which would further push the world on the brink of an extremely dangerous situation. The United States must sit at the high table with North Korea where both should commit to denuclearization as the possession of nuclear weapons do not just create possibilities of a nuclear war with unimaginable consequences, not to forget the possibility of accidental launches, but also raises the bar of tolerance for more lethal weapons. Only a firm commitment on both sides and a clear roadmap to denuclearization coupled with lifting of sanctions in a phased manner can ensure international peace and stability. 

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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