WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After U.S. President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, his future policy chief for the Indo-Pacific region said the new administration would have to decide quickly its approach to North Korea and its nuclear and missile programs.
Delay during the Obama administration saw “provocative” North Korean steps “that basically headed off any possibility of engagement,” Kurt Campbell said.
High-profile summits between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un produced little.
Yet Biden left North Korea entirely out of his maiden foreign policy speech in February 2021 and hours after his first news conference as president the following month, North Korea launched a new tactical missile, highlighting its relentless military advances.
At that time, Biden agreed with a questioner in saying that North Korea was the top foreign policy issues he faced, yet it was another month before he settled on a strategy that kept the door open to diplomacy but rejected the idea of offering the sanctions relief Pyongyang sought before it took steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea called this evidence of “hostile” U.S. intent and this year embarked upon an unprecedented spate of missile testing, culminating with what appears to have been its largest ever intercontinental ballistic missile launch on Thursday.
The return to testing of missiles capable of hitting the United States and Kim’s vow to develop a system with multiple warheads capable of evading U.S. missile defenses presents a fresh major headache for Biden at a time when he is consumed by countering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and prepares for challenging mid-term elections in November.
But responding to the first launch of an ICBM since 2017 will be far more difficult than it was then, with the world powers that are capable of imposing new sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), as they did after the last ICBM tests, at odds over Ukraine.
After his ICBM tests in 2017, North Korea’s Kim launched into an unprecedented period of engagement with Trump, which ultimately did nothing to roll back Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
“The Biden administration … had the chance to try to start off on a more productive foot with the North Koreans,” said Jenny Town of the North Korea project, 38 North.
Progress could have been made in confidence-building steps, including towards declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War and clearing obstacles for humanitarian aid, that should have been dealt with when relations were warming under Trump.
“But now – the moment is gone,” Town said. “And with the U.N. Security Council effectively paralyzed, the tools we have – even to build off-ramps to escalation, are much more limited.”
“We’re not in a good spot … this was entirely predictable,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA Korea analyst now with Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank (CSIS), adding that there could be worse to come in terms of North Korean tests.
“This is … the perfect time because the whole world is distracted and there’s going to be no real consequences,” she said. “What is UNSC going to do? Is Russia going to help, is China going to help?”
WORRY OVER BOMB TESTS
A particular worry is that Kim might also resume nuclear bomb tests for the first time since 2017.
Victor Cha, a former White House North Korea expert now with CSIS, said satellite imagery had shown renewed activity at North Korea’s main nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri. While it was not yet possible to determine exactly what that implied, “any activity there is not a good sign,” he said.
Matt Pottinger, who served as Trump’s deputy national security adviser, told a Hoover Institution event on Thursday that North Korea would have been emboldened by the Biden administration’s “appeasement” of Iran over its nuclear program.
Former Obama administration officials close to the current administration defended its approach.
Daniel Russel, Obama’s top diplomat for East Asia, said there were no good options for dealing with North Korea and that Trump’s “ill-advised” summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 had “eased pressure on North Korea without restraining its nuclear and missile programs.”
“In fact, the ICBM just launched was surely developed and produced while Kim and then-president Trump were exchanging ‘love notes,'” he said, referring to the letters between them.
Abraham Denmark, the senior Pentagon official for East Asia under Obama, argued that Biden’s efforts to strengthen U.S. alliances and its leadership of the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meant “deterrence against North Korean aggression is far stronger today.”
He said Kim’s calculations were not only driven by Washington, and the demonstration of a more credible ICBM capability could be aimed signaling strength and resolve in response to incoming South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has declared his intention to adopt a much harder line against Pyongyang and strengthen Seoul’s U.S. alliance.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; additional reportng by Michael Martina; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)