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What Will Joe Biden Do If North Korea Tests Nuclear Weapons or ICBMs?

North Korea
Image of North Korean Road-Mobile ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

America’s Poor Choices if North Korean Resumes Nuke and ICBM Testing: Perhaps it was inevitable. Negotiating with North Korea has proven so futile for so long, that the North’s recent announcement that it may resume ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) and nuclear testing probably does not surprise many analysts anymore.

The North’s rationale for this is old hat by now. It has justified its weapons of mass destruction programs for decades by declaiming (falsely) a US ‘hostile policy.’ The US recently sanctioned several North Korea officials connected to its WMD programming. Given that North Korean elites are scarcely exposed to American punishments anyway – because of how little North Korea interacts directly with the US – this seems like quite an overreaction. The real reason is almost certainly the collapse of the negotiations under former US President Donald Trump and the lack of any follow-up by current President Joseph Biden.

Trump’s Diplomacy

In 2018 and 2019, Trump met the North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un, three times. This was unprecedented. North Korea had sought such a summit for decades. It would be a huge coup for the tiny, backward, Orwellian tyranny much of the world simply wanted to forget about. A summit would suggest a North Korean peer equality with South Korea, something Pyongyang desperately wants to assert as it has fallen further and further behind Seoul. Nothing would legitimate North Korea’s existence as a real country – rather than a failed, bizarre cul-de-sac of Korean history – like a face-to-face meeting with the most powerful leader on the planet.

For this very reason, US presidents always rejected such summits. They would grant legitimacy to North Korea which the US wants South Korea to have. They would also place the US president next to the worst human-rights abuser on the planet, a moral stain on the office. Trump, the gleeful disrupter, simply ignored all that and met Kim in hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize. Analysts worried that Trump would make large concessions to Pyongyang in search of any deal which would win him the Nobel.

Yet Kim, surprisingly, gimmicked the ensuing negotiations. His offer to Trump, at Hanoi in 2019, was laughably one-sided. Kim wanted full sanctions relief for the decommissioning of one obsolete reactor. Trump, despite his lust for ratings and attention, wisely rejected this, and negotiations under his presidency faded away.

Now North Korea Expects Presidential Attention

In the fall of 2019, Trump sent his secretary of state to Pyongyang. The North Koreans ignored him, insisting on negotiating seriously only with the US president himself. The North Koreans similarly ignored the South Korean president, treating him as subordinate to the American alliance leader. The message was clear: having once met a US president, the North would only negotiate seriously with him next time.

Yet Biden did not have time for this in his first term. Biden learned, like so many others who have leaped into the North Korean quagmire, that the issues are deeply set and not amenable to quick, Trumpian solutions, and that the North is determined to draw out negotiations to capture the status gains of being treated as a consequential player in world politics. Just as unsorting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a thankless task that can easily swallow a president’s foreign policy for naught, so is the gordian knot in Korea. Biden, seeing how badly Trump got burned – three high-profile, but fruitless meetings with the world’s most brutal tyrant – choose to demote Korea. This may have been wise for the fate of his presidency, but we know North Korea will not be ignored. Hence the likely inevitability of the recent North Korea announcement: if we do not talk with them, they test. And now they expect no less than the US president to negotiate with them.

What Can We Do?

The short answer is, not very much. If there was something the international community could do to derail North Korea’s aggressive WMD testing, we almost certainly would have done it before. In the greater Middle East, the US often uses asymmetric tactics against weak states, such as special operations forces or drones. That option is foreclosed in northeast Asia.

North Korea TELs

Image: KCNA.

North Korea Missiles

Image of Hwasong-12 IRBM. Image Credit: KCNA.

The US has never asymmetrically struck North Korea for several reasons. First, North Korea is geographically difficult to penetrate. Second, it has a large professional military that would aggressively fight any perceived penetration. Third, we do not know what North Korea’s redlines are. We do not know, for example, how it would respond to a drone strike against a facility. Given South Korea’s vulnerability to North Korean retaliation, the US and South Korea have never taken that risk.

Other direct action is risky. Suggestions include aggressively hacking North Korea or shooting down a test missile. But the former is difficult because we have so little access to North Korea and it is so de-linked from the rest of the world. The latter is initially attractive, but the US military fears its missile defenses in South Korea and Japan might miss the North Korean test missile, embarrassing the US and casting doubt on American regional defense capabilities.

So we have to live with North Korean testing, just as we have in the past. Should Pyongyang resume nuclear testing – even more frightening than missile testing – the international community will (and should) consider another round of multilateral sanctions. But North Korea has been pretty well blockaded from the world economy since the onset of ‘sectoral sanctions’ in 2016. And the sanctions generate a lot of humanitarian backlash because of North Korea’s already severe poverty.

KCNA Hwasong-16 Image

KCNA screenshot of Hwasong-16 ICBM.

Negotiation and more investment in missile defense are probably our best medium-term options moving forward. North Korea is so dangerous, that we should always make an effort to talk with it. If US and DPRK negotiators could nail down a genuine arms control agreement – rather than Trump’s made-for-TV diplomacy – Biden might consider meeting Kim. But in lieu of that, the US and South Korea should keep plugging away at missile defense. North Korea’s refusal to halt or freeze its WMD development, and its relentless gimmickry in negotiation, even with Trump, leave us no choice.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.