Biden's DPRK Policy Review
The Pulse

Biden's DPRK Policy Review

On April 30th, the United States announced the completion of the months-long North Korea policy review. Although lacking in specifics, the review made clear the Biden administration would commit to “a more calibrated, practical, measured approach” towards North Korea, one that seeks progress towards denuclearization through diplomacy. While the preliminary results of the review were released ahead of the Biden-Moon summit held on May 21, it seems as though the Biden administration will roll out the full review only in general terms to preserve its negotiating options.

Four experts, Jean Lee, Mark Tokola, Dr. Tanya Ogilvie-White and Prof. Bong-geun Jun share their views on the new administration’s North Korea review.


Ms. Jean Lee

Award-winning writer, commentator and expert on North Korea currently serving as co-host of the The Lazarus Heist podcast for the BBC World Service.

There’s nothing surprising in the few details that the White House has revealed so far. The Biden Administration has been clear that the era of love letters and theatrical summits as a starting point for diplomacy is over. What we can expect is a more pragmatic approach, drawn from the past quarter-century of negotiations with North Korea and taking into account the regime’s expanded nuclear arsenal.

Hopefully, the administration will build on the diplomatic progress made over the past four years(rather than jettisoning everything from the Trump administration) and come up with a long-term strategy that takes all stakeholders in the region into account. This was always a marathon, not the sprint that Donald Trump envisioned.

The recent White House statements alone won’t be enough to draw the North Koreans out of their self-imposed isolation. But continued and consistent signals, even if that’s all they are for now, are important. Pyongyang will calibrate its strategy as more details are revealed.

I believe Kim Jong Un does ultimately want to return to negotiations — but only when he feels confident of success. We may see both sides beefing up their leverage in the meantime: weapons on the North Korean side and sanctions on the U.S. side.

Mr. Mark Tokola

Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, DC.

The result of the Biden Administration’s North Korea policy review has not been published, but Administration officials have described it in enough detail that we can understand its outlines.  They use words such as “calibrated,” “practical,” “gradual,” and “flexible.”

Perhaps of greatest significance, President Biden in his joint press conference with President Moon Jae-in referred to “our ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  The word “ultimate” is striking because it implies that denuclearization lies at the end of a process.  This would be a departure from previous U.S. Administrations, which insisted that denuclearization come first.  The Biden Administration is clear that denuclearization is the most important issue but has removed it as a condition for other steps and seems to have lessened its urgency.  This should be welcomed by those who favor engagement.

The Biden Administration has also made clear that any future Biden-Kim summit will occur only if the stage is set through working-level negotiations, in close coordination between Washington and Seoul.  President Biden has named Sung Kim, a deeply experienced diplomat, as DPRK special envoy.  Whether Kim-Jong Un appoints a counterpart negotiator will be a test of his seriousness about engaging in diplomacy.


Dr. Tanya Ogilvie-White

Senior Research Advisor at APLN, Director of the New Zealand Centre for Global Studies (NZCGS), and Senior Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

After nearly six months of the Biden administration, a formal review, a White House Summit, and the appointment of a part-time special envoy, US DPRK policy is still unclear. The Covid-19 crisis is probably partly responsible for this opacity. Pyongyang is locked down, and the White House, preoccupied with its own domestic challenges, might well be waiting for circumstances to improve before it commits to a DPRK engagement strategy. The calculation could be that it’s better to wait than be held accountable for the outcome of negotiations held in difficult conditions.

But current conditions aren’t all bad. For one, President Moon Jae-in has made it clear he favours DPRK engagement, and the absolute majority he secured in April 2020 gives him scope to leave a positive mark on Korean peninsula affairs. For his part, Kim Jong-un could be more amenable to constructive engagement in circumstances where the Pandemic has exacerbated North Korea’s economic crisis.

The clock is ticking loudly, though. The South Korean president is restricted to a single five-year term in office and Moon’s presidency is due to expire next year. Rather than allow the current drift in US policy to continue, the Biden administration should make the most of a willing ROK partner and push ahead with DPRK engagement. Even if the focus is initially on providing vaccine assistance, it’s time to knock on Pyongyang’s door.


Prof. Bong-geun Jun

Professor at the Department of National Security and Unification Studies at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security(IFANS) in the Korean National Diplomatic Academy.

The Biden-Moon summit created a positive environment for resuming U.S.-North Korea dialogue. Seoul supported Washington’s coordinated, practical and phased approach for the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Washington welcomed Seoul’s initiatives for dialogue, engagement, and cooperation with Pyongyang. However, North Korea will not return to the negotiating table. How then can we break the looming stalemate, which could easily drag the two sides into the trap of the ‘strategic patience’ of the Obama era?

I propose President Joe Biden to write a letter addressed to ‘President’ Kim Jong-un. In the letter, he would confirm his commitment to the Singapore Joint Statement and the four goals therein, express his willingness to work with Kim to fulfill these goals, and propose a high working-level dialogue, while expecting Kim’s restraint from nuclear and missile provocations. The U.S. side will be reluctant to write a letter that might be seen as weak. Kim, who felt dishonored and embarrassed in Hanoi, is hardly in a position to be the first mover. Considering the extremely high stakes of preventing North Korea from acquiring a nuclear deterrent, the U.S. needs to be fast and bold. Only the strong can take a first and bold step. U.S. President Biden is the one.


Image: Gage Skidmore.

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