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Biden Should Take a Firm Stance Towards North Korea

For the Biden administration, the North Korean nuclear program remains a pressing issue. In recent years, the United States and North Korea had improved relations, and Pyongyang hadn’t drastically upscaled its nuclear weapons program. However, Steve Biegun, the former Special Representative for North Korea, recently said North Korea wasted its best opportunity to “fundamentally reinvent its relationship with the United States.” Now the question remains, what should President Biden’s approach be to North Korea?

In my view, the Biden administration should take a firm stance, including resuming military exercises with South Korea and strengthening the North Korean sanctions regime. Negotiations will be difficult due to a lack of trust. As North Korea’s demand for nuclear weapons will not vanish, U.S. interests will be challenged.

Historically, there is a lack of trust between Washington and Pyeongyang. This lack of trust undercuts any other talks between the two parties. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework. Under the framework, North Korea would abandon its nuclear ambitions while receiving support from the U.S. in the form of energy assistance. However, the Bush administration left the framework, and North Korea resumed its nuclear activities.

Years later, the Six-Party Talks began. However, a lack of trust haunted the process from the start. The U.S. insisted that “it could not talk with North Korea alone, and that any talks must include China.” Admittedly, there were positive signs with the talks in the early stages. North Korea clearly stated in a joint statement in 2005, “The DPRK [is] committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” However, these articles did not last long, and North Korea resumed its nuclear program in 2009. All of these failures destroyed any remaining trust between Washington and Pyongyang.

As it currently stands, North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons program. In Pyongyang’s eyes, its possession of nuclear weapons ensures its survival. A Korean proverb goes, “when the whales fight, the shrimp breaks its back.” North Korea is the shrimp among the whales in Northeast Asia. Also, North Korea, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, suffered politically and economically. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended North Korea’s easy access to cheap fuel and fertilizer, which hindered the North Korean economy dramatically since it had to pay market price for those materials. Meanwhile, Russia did not extend the Treaty of Friendship with DPRK in 1991. China, at the same time, chose to hide its power and bite its time. China even formed a diplomatic relationship with South Korea in 1992. This chain of events triggered North Korea’s path towards independence and self-reliance. In 2017, the United States clarified that it does not seek regime change in North Korea. Yet, this clarification is far from sufficient to allay any North Korean concerns.

Meanwhile, the examples of both Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad makes it more difficult for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. During the Arab Spring, Rodong Sinmun, a North Korean newspaper, wrote: “In recent years, the tragedies of some countries which renounced the nuclear program halfway under the US pressure have confirmed the sensible and correct choice North Korea has made…Only by doing so can the national and ethnic autonomy be safeguarded.” Under the current circumstance, it seems almost impossible for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Moreover, North Korea has dramatically upgraded its weapons capabilities. North Korea demonstrated its ability to theoretically reach the U.S. mainland with its Hwasong-15 flight test in 2017. This year, during a military parade, the demonstration of a new ballistic missile mounted on an 11-axel launch vehicle has drawn international attention. The new missile is visibly more extensive than the Hwasong-15, which could mean having more warheads and more range. These recent developments pose a significant threat to the U.S. mainland and U.S. interests throughout Asia.

However, one thing that needs to be clear is that a firm stance does not mean shutting down all negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. The U.S. should start from working-level meetings to reach a solution rather than high-level meetings with no deliverable results. However, a few weeks before Biden’s inauguration, Kim Jong-Un stated that “Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the U.S., our biggest enemy and the main obstacle to our innovated development.” This indicates that the door for negotiations is still open. Still, space is much more limited compared to the previous Trump administration. It is a much more practical move for the Biden administration to pursue lower-level working meetings to reach common ground.