North Korea’s ICBM Test Underscores Futility of U.S. Policy – Pyongyang’s March 24, 2022, ICBM missile test has created agitation in both Washington and East Asian capitals. If it were not for the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, this development would easily be the top concern of U.S. foreign policy officials. Evidence indicates that the missile tested was probably that of an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. It was the first time North Korea had tested a long-range missile since 2017, just before relations with the United States thawed, leading to three summit meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump.
An ICBM Test We Should Have Expected
Pyongyang’s latest action was thoroughly predictable. North Korean complaints about Washington’s policy positions had been resurgent for more than two years. In January 2022, Pyongyang conducted 7 missile tests in a single month. Kim’s regime capped off the series by marking the lunar New Year with the flight of an intermediate-range missile, the Hwasong-12, capable of reaching Guam.
The flurry of tests punctuated Kim’s conclusion that once-promising hopes for establishing a normal bilateral relationship with Washington were now in the rearview mirror. Such hopes had risen dramatically in 2018 and 2019 when Trump’s administration seemed to abandon the entrenched U.S. policy of trying to isolate North Korea. His willingness to hold multiple summit meetings with Kim was an indication of a more realistic and flexible U.S. approach. The video image of Trump briefly crossing into North Korea during the third summit was especially powerful symbolism that a more constructive, cordial relationship might be on the horizon.
Growing domestic opposition, combined with policy sabotage by National Security Advisor John Bolton and other hardliners on the president’s foreign policy team, doomed the effort to achieve constructive change. The abrupt end to the February 2019 summit in Hanoi occurred because the U.S. side refused to back away from Washington’s long-standing (and unrealistic) demand that Pyongyang takes major steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations could commence on other issues.
As hopes for a rapprochement faded, Kim’s government revived its hostile, combative rhetoric in late 2019. It was notable, though, that dangerous, disruptive actions on Pyongyang’s part were slower to re-emerge. Pyongyang appeared to hope that whatever the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Washington might be more flexible and accommodating going forward.
With Joe Biden’s victory, it became clear that any hope for innovative measures regarding the North Korea issue was misplaced. Biden’s personal commitment to Washington’s futile, pre-Trump zombie policy of treating Pyongyang as an international pariah was apparent even during the 2020 election debates. Biden confirmed the continuation of the sterile approach of trying to isolate North Korea when the administration imposed new sanctions following the January 2022 missile tests.
From ICBM Tests to Nuclear Tests?
Yet there are still some manifestations of North Korean restraint. Pyongyang has not conducted a nuclear-weapons test since September 2017—just before the Trump administration began to pursue its outreach. Kim’s government also implemented a self-imposed moratorium on all missile tests–even the short-range variety. That policy did not change until January 2022, and the moratorium on long-range missiles just ended with the March test. North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear tests remains in effect for the time being. However, if the Biden administration’s ossified policy regarding bilateral relations doesn’t change, Kim’s restraint even on that issue is likely to expire soon.
The Biden foreign policy team seems caught in a time warp. Trump’s initiatives were encouraging because they reflected greater policy realism and flexibility. Unfortunately, Washington now seems to have reverted to the status quo ante. Instead of persisting in the fruitless demand for Pyongyang to return to a non-nuclear status, U.S. leaders should seek ways to establish a normal bilateral relationship on multiple fronts. That means easing and eventually eliminating the vast array of economic sanctions that have been imposed over the decades. It also means negotiating a treaty formally ending the Korean War and establishing full diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The alternative is to continue treating North Korea as a pariah while watching helplessly as the country slowly, but steadily, builds a nuclear arsenal and a sophisticated missile fleet that includes ICBMs capable of devastating American cities. Such an approach benefits no one. At the moment, the United States has no meaningful relationship with the world’s latest nuclear power. That situation is dangerous for all parties.
The new ICBM test is the latest warning that Washington needs to adopt a normal, realistic relationship with North Korea. So far, it does not appear that the Biden administration is up to that crucial task.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 12 books and more than 950 articles on international affairs. He is also a 1945 Contributing Editor.
March 25, 2022 at 9:02 am
Does the USA really want to solve its own conflicts with the fists in Europe, Asia and the Middle East? The USA has to make more use of diplomacy. Its entrance into the Middle East was not though wars but by men with suit and tie.
March 25, 2022 at 9:17 am
Indeed, US policy has failed. It has always failed, like all of hitler’s policies.
N Korea has shown that one needs to be fully determined to shrug off US bullying, childish threats, dirty sanctions and fake offers.
Having said that, it must be noted that n korea’s ‘ICBM’ poses essentially zero threat to washington for reasons even a small child would know.
But n korea has demonstrated one must ignore US policy (just hog swill in essence) if one wants to progress. The so-called hwasong ‘ICBM’ may one day lead to n korea becoming a (future) space power.
Thus, countries like russia, iran, venezuela, cuba, nk, etc..must form ‘Organization of Victims of Dirty US Sanctions or OVDUSS to defeat US policy and consign it to the dust heap of history, just like where hitler’ s policies have been put into.
Iran muzt reject US fake overture in the IAEA case and cooperate with russia to develop its own version of rs-28 rocket and thereby be able to wave a finger at washington. Just like n korea is doing now. Wave the middle finger at fascisto biden.
March 25, 2022 at 11:38 am
It’s so funny that Putin’s cruel beasts have found this website and post their anti US insanity as comments. As Russia’s tanks run over women with babies in their arms, these crackpots think they can divert attention by posting rambling, nonsensical anti US rants. So funny
March 25, 2022 at 2:03 pm
Countries must start/restart nuke tests. Reason is age of reason and restraint is over due to ‘election’ of 80-year-old biden as 46th pres.
March 26, 2022 at 2:21 pm
The point of the North Korea policy is not just North Korea. No other country has built nuclear weapons since North Korea did. In that sense, the policy succeeded. If we turned around and said it is basically ok for North Korea to have a nuclear arsenal, then I think it would be hard to explain why, for example, Taiwan can’t have one too.
March 27, 2022 at 6:19 pm
And the winner is… Joe Comment, who clearly understands the precepts of nuclear non-proliferation. What levers does the US have over Xi’s mini-me in any event? Even sanctions can’t hurt a C15th feudal agrarian economy whose population is oppressed under a thermonuclear jackboot. *All* that matters is the message sent to the would-be followers of Commentar’s deranged Putinbot propaganda that they should think twice before arming up like NK, lest they be sanctioned back to the C15th themselves. Just like Putin’s Russia will be. (Zelenskiy’s reference to how the value of roubles will soon be measured by weight, not what number is printed on the note, was prescient.) Come in from the cold, Commentar. Ol’ Vladolf is doing you no favors at all.
March 27, 2022 at 6:20 pm
And the winner is…. Joe Comment, who clearly understands the precepts of nuclear non-proliferation. What levers does the US have over Xi’s mini-me in any event? Even sanctions can’t hurt a C15th feudal agrarian economy whose population is oppressed under a thermonuclear jackboot. *All* that matters is the message sent to the would-be followers of Commentar’s deranged Putinbot propaganda that they should think twice before arming up like NK, lest they be sanctioned back to the C15th themselves. Just like Putin’s Russia will be. (Zelenskiy’s reference to how the value of roubles will soon be measured by weight, not what number is printed on the note, was prescient.) Come in from the cold, Commentar. Ol’ Vladolf is doing you no favors at all.
March 28, 2022 at 12:39 pm
“The alternative is to continue treating North Korea as a pariah while watching helplessly as the country slowly, but steadily, builds a nuclear arsenal and a sophisticated missile fleet that includes ICBMs capable of devastating American cities.”
The *best* alternative has *always* been before us, and time and time again refused by the Left. That is Orbital Ballistic Missile Defense. In January of 1993, we were negotiating for, and were within 6 months of a signable treaty, to replace the ABM Treaty for this with Russia. It was called GPALS. Within 24 hours of coming into office, the Clinton Administration round-filed that Treaty. Then, they neglected to tell anyone on the Russian side about this. This insult was deeply felt in the Kremlin, and was the beginning of the “Great Russia Faction” there. That eventually became the Party headed by Vladimir Putin.