In the frenzy of unsolicited advice offered late last year to the incoming Biden-Harris administration, I made the case in Foreign Policy for enlisting a prominent figure to lead a North Korea policy review. Back then, the mood in Seoul was anxiety-ridden over widespread fears that president-elect Biden would revert to the Obama-era skittishness about dealing directly with Pyongyang (a posture known by the shorthand “strategic patience”). But as acknowledged in the title of my piece, “How to Buy Time on the Korean Peninsula after Trump’s Theatrics,” I did not lobby for quick, bold engagement like many here and even a few in Washington, notably Victor Cha in Foreign Affairs. Given the severity of domestic challenges facing the United States, it seemed unrealistic to expect even North Korean nukes to be much of a front-burner issue early on. Similarly, Kim Jong Un appeared to be laser-focused on internal challenges (as I wrote for Asian Survey), and not particularly in the mood to be engaged, at least in a big way. I interpret the absence of a “strategic provocation” by North Korea at this point over 100 days into the new administration (contrary to the anticipation of many experts) as a confirmation of sorts that Kim has been in no hurry to climb the ladder of national security priorities.
Given this mutual unreadiness on both sides of the Pacific, I would not fault the administration for having taken its time announcing completion of its North Korea policy review, keeping to a low-key rollout, and leaving us guessing exactly where they want to go, what they plan to do, and how they hope to do it. Some of the hints in the debriefs of the review, moreover, are encouraging: the focus on being “practical” and “calibrated,” lowering expectations of easy success and avoiding overreaction to setbacks, and framing progress in terms of small steps toward the ultimate objective of denuclearization. Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan used smart language, calibrated to the adversary’s ear, in an interview with Martha Raddatz on ABC News when he insisted that the administration’s policy was aimed at “solutions” rather than “hostility.”
If these hints prove true and the review ended on the pragmatism of negotiating “something for something” and embracing proactive diplomacy over punitive sanctions, then the outcome of the review points in a promising direction. However, in terms of the process of the review itself, the administration may have missed an opportunity by treating it as an inside job, focusing on inter-agency coordination and a consensus judgment on the approaches of the last four administrations. In so far as there was “consultation with allies,” it appeared to take place mostly in a trilateral context, with the effect of elevating Tokyo to the same level as Seoul. This is a strategic mistake: Prime Minister Suga frankly has little to offer on diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, whereas President Moon Jae-in is prepared to bring considerable political will and national resources to bear in order to improve inter-Korean relations in sync with improving US-DPRK ties (Moon made this clear in his recent national address on the goals of the final year of his presidency). Most critically, there have evidently been no consultations with the object of the policy, North Korea. Administration officials revealed they made an effort in vain to communicate at least via DPRK diplomats at the United Nations using the so-called New York Channel. The seniority of diplomatic engagement matters, and from what can be gleaned from reports, it took place at a much lower level than Trump era outreach, which began in CIA backchannels (involving then-Director of Central Intelligence Mike Pompeo), peaked with love letters, personal envoys, and summits involving the President, and finally petered out under the care of a dedicated North Korea envoy who was also the number two official at the State Department (Deputy Secretary and Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun). Admittedly, a policy review is inherently backward-looking and inward-oriented, but it would have behooved the administration to resist excessive insularity, since the review has ended up where we began: the need to revive senior level dialogue with Pyongyang.
It was precisely to avoid this fate that, back in December, I proposed the administration act early on to appoint a senior figure with gravitas: former US Forces Korea Commander Vince Brooks, who understands the complexities of security on the Peninsula and the bigger strategic picture of the region, and who is slightly removed from the pack in Washington. Tapping retired General Brooks, or someone of similar stature and vision, may have increased the administration’s chances of kick-starting talks with North Korean counterparts in the process of conducting the policy review—on the model of the “Perry Process” led by former Defense Secretary Bill Perry in the late 1990s.
Had such a figure led the review and involved Pyongyang from the outset, the administration might also have avoided the one disappointing outcome. According to reporting by Josh Rogin at The Washington Post, the administration has no plans to fill the post of North Korea envoy. This is a mistake, signaling policy neglect to the key ally, Seoul, and lack of diplomatic investment to the key counterpart, Pyongyang. It’s also a bad look for the US in Northeast Asia, made worse by the comparison to Beijing, which a month ago announced that prominent diplomat Liu Xiaoming would fill the equivalent post in the PRC foreign ministry. Opening dialogue and making headway will take time, but adequate preparations have to start now, all the more so given the complexity of the problem and absence of a near-term panacea. The administration should move swiftly to redress this by recruiting a point-person for talking to Pyongyang, timing the announcement to coincide with President Moon’s visit to the White House on 21 May.
What else can help create forward movement toward mutually-acceptable “solutions” to the North Korea conundrum? Many voices here in Seoul, including President Moon, have been calling on the new administration to affirm the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit joint statement, a move alluded to by the anonymous senior official who told John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post that “our approach will build on the Singapore agreement.” President Biden’s clear verbal affirmation of the key phrase in the Singapore statement—a commitment to “establish new relations” between the US and DPRK— would facilitate initiating talks with Pyongyang. Biden has wisely avoided provocative rhetoric against Kim Jong Un, the kind of cheap shots that achieve no positive outcome. The visit by his key ally from Seoul is an opportunity for the President to be more forward-leaning in his language about seeking an end to hostile relations with North Korea, by acknowledging Pyongyang’s legitimate security concerns (and maybe hinting at the shared wariness of China). Biden can help his envoy revive talks by affirming the national interest in transforming US-DPRK relations from Cold War enmity to 21st century peaceful co-existence.
Every White House since the end of the Cold War has ended up in negotiations with Pyongyang. The question is not whether to talk to Pyongyang, but when, at what level, with how much political will, and toward what end. Hopefully, Mr. Moon’s visit to Washington will be an occasion for the two liberal leaders of allied states to coordinate their answers, in word and deed.
John Delury is a Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, South Korea.