After he labelled America as North Korea’s “foremost principal enemy” and announced plans to strengthen his regime’s nuclear and missile arsenal, Kim Jong-un last week offered Washington an opportunity to start a “new relationship” by ending its “hostile policy.” However, Kim’s cryptic offer, which he presented during the 8th Party Congress of the North Korean Worker’s Party, may be a trap for the incoming Biden administration.
The new U.S. leadership should be careful in handling any of Pyongyang’s possible olive branches. Throughout its history, the Kim family regime has exploited dialogue with the U.S. and South Korea solely to gain economic and political benefits without ever providing anything in return. Pyongyang also has a notorious track record of cheating on diplomatic agreements.
Two examples illustrate the regime’s mendacity. In 2002, the State Department revealed it had evidence that North Korea broke its commitment to “not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities” – pursuant to the 1992 Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – by developing a clandestine uranium enrichment program. Similarly, in 2006, by testing its first nuclear device, Pyongyang broke its commitment in the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”
Kim Jong-un’s current demand for the U.S. to end its “hostile policy” also reflects Pyongyang’s continuation of its deceitful agenda. This is because North Korean officials have historically used the term “hostile policy” to describe economic sanctions, U.S. troop deployments to South Korea, extended deterrence, and the nuclear umbrella protecting Japan and South Korea. If Washington meets Pyongyang’s pre-condition by ending these policies, the U.S. would lose significant economic and strategic leverage for future negotiations.
Therefore, the Biden administration should reject Kim’s offer and instead impose a robust pressure campaign not only to persuade North Korea back into negotiations but also to change Kim’s strategic calculus. The Kim regime continues to believe that its survival depends on nuclear armament. The purpose of a pressure campaign would be to impose such devastating costs that Kim realizes that his regime’s longevity would be more secure without possessing nuclear weapons.
This approach may be even more effective now because North Korea is currently facing one of its worst economic crises since the devastating Arduous March that that resulted from the famine of 1994-1996. As North Korea’s economy continues to suffer, external pressure may help Kim feel a greater urgency to consider proposing a new regime survival strategy that no longer relies on nuclear weapons.
For President-elect Biden, this pressure campaign should integrate all aspects of U.S. political, economic, and military power. First, Washington should address inadequacies in sanctions enforcement efforts. One area of concern is the lack of pressure on foreign banks and financial institutions that provide North Korean companies and individuals with access to the international financial system to conduct illicit business. Without holding these institutions accountable, the U.S. leaves open a gaping vulnerability for North Koreans and their foreign partners to continue exploiting. Consequently, the Treasury Department should target its investigations and penalties against major banks that are violating existing sanctions.
Second, President-elect Biden must resolve U.S. disputes with treaty ally South Korea. This historic alliance has served as the linchpin to peace and security on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia, and has deterred North Korea for decades. This is why North Korea has actively sought to divide the U.S. and South Korea by exacerbating policy differences between the two countries to undermine bilateral cooperation. In so doing, Pyongyang seeks to augment its own diplomatic leverage at the expense of Washington and Seoul. Biden should ensure there are no alliance gaps that Kim could exploit.
Lastly, the U.S. should ensure that its military forces stationed in South Korea continue joint military exercises, albeit within boundaries deemed appropriate regarding COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Maintaining the readiness and capabilities of U.S. forward-deployed forces combined with ROK forces is essential to deter North Korea and support diplomatic efforts.
The Biden administration must not surrender to Kim’s demands. Imposing costs and pressure will situate the U.S. and its allies in a firm position of strength to negotiate with North Korea in order to manage and eventually peacefully resolve this complex security challenge.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research analyst. Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.