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Joe Biden’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea Is a Historic Mistake

Hwasong-17 North Korea ICBM
Hwasong-17 North Korea ICBM. Image Credit: North Korean State Media Release.

North Korea’s Friday announcement that it had successfully tested a “high-thrust, solid-fuel motor” was seriously bad news for the United States and its allies. Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program has long received considerable international attention (although regrettably little effective response), but last week’s test reached a potentially significant milestone. Solid-fuel missiles, unlike their liquid-fueled counterparts, are quickly launchable once deployed from hidden arsenals. They are essential to a nuclear power’s first-strike capability, sent on their way before they can be pre-emptively destroyed on the launching pad, which is a major risk for liquid-fueled missiles. North Korean propaganda always merits independent verification, but this rings depressingly true, following as it does months of extensive, continuing missile testing, nearly 70 launches this year, and increasingly harsh rhetoric by Kim Jong Un’s regime.

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The Biden administration reacted passively, letting the test proceed without significant reaction. Perhaps it was consumed with its rearrangement of the bureaucratic deck chairs on the State Department Titanic to handle its nearly invisible China strategy. There’s nothing like a government reorganization to help divert from a policy vacuum. Unfortunately, North Korea’s quickening menace hasn’t even provoked any visible paper reshuffling. 

While Beijing is undoubtedly this century’s existential threat for America, Pyongyang is an immediate danger — to Northeast Asia, the United States, and worldwide. As the North’s capabilities accumulate with increasing speed, it may be difficult to identify the significance of each new piece of bad news. But North Korea remains a desperately impoverished country, once again reportedly enduring significant food shortages and still shrouding its experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indulging in the expenditures necessary for the offensive military systems it is building, its nuclear-weapons program most prominently, underlines just how determined, and likely how close to fruition, Kim’s project is.

Japan and South Korea Getting Serious

North Korea is effectively China’s surrogate in destabilizing Northeast Asia. Although both sides deny that Pyongyang is subordinate to Beijing, it is long past time to appreciate that China’s support for the North is effectively the foundation keeping the Kim dynasty in power. China’s Communist party supports the world’s only hereditary Communist dictatorship because it suits them; if China wanted North Korea’s nuclear program ended, it could terminate its support tomorrow. Kim Jong Un would be unable to hold onto power for long, replaced most likely (and perhaps bloodily) by a general at Beijing’s beck and call. Stripped to its essentials, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship is not nearly so complicated as the charade we have, in effect, accepted these many years.

The key conclusion is that China and North Korea constitute a joint threat. They are not independent variables, although the nature of their threat manifests itself in many different ways. From that conclusion flows the logic that an opposing strategy must address how to handle this combined threat over time, whatever aspect seems most imminent at any particular point. Indeed, if anything, given the intensifying cooperation between North Korea and Russia regarding Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the global nature of the growing threat is even clearer. Washington may be having trouble understanding this point, but last week, after due deliberation, Tokyo reacted with stunning decisiveness.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged to double Japan’s defense budget in five years (thereby reaching the target of 2% of GDP for military expenditure set eight years ago for NATO members). Fulfilling the pledge would make Japan’s defense outlays the world’s third-largest, behind only the United States and China. Tokyo also published Defense of Japan 2022, a white paper stressing the threat from Beijing and Pyongyang and the continued strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Moreover, as Japan foreshadowed earlier this year announcing its assistance to Ukraine, the new defense strategy says clearly that “North Korea defends Russia.” The European Union should certainly take note of this resolve emanating from the Far East.

A few days before, Japan announced its purchase of up to 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles, a move the Washington Post characterized as “a stunning break with a long tradition of eschewing offensive weapons.” With a range exceeding 1,000 miles, Tomahawks fired from Japan could easily reach Beijing, and they could hit all of North Korea. Obviously much more remains to be accomplished before Prime Minister Kishida’s objectives, and those of Defense of Japan 2022, can be achieved, but Tokyo’s forward thinking is impressive.

In South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, still a relatively new president, has had considerable success in moving away from the “sunshine policy” of his immediate predecessor, notably by restarting joint military exercises with the U.S., which were unwisely curtailed during President Donald Trump’s futile efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang. Yoon has also taken steps to improve relations with Japan, which is critical to more effective collective-defense measures in the Western Pacific. South Korea’s growing appreciation that Chinese threats to Taiwan implicate its own national security marks a critical advance in Seoul’s strategic vision.

Foreign Policy Is a Big Domestic Political Issue

The real problem here, in facing China and North Korea, is the passivity of the United States. President Biden’s seeming resolve to continue for a third term the failed Obama administration policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea, and its self-imposed imperative of climate-change negotiations with China, have stifled development of an effective U.S. policy response. Once-promising initiatives like the Asian Quad are stalled, and new military initiatives regarding Korea, worthwhile though they may be, are decidedly limited in scope. Around the region, for example, concern for China’s efforts to establish hegemony has motivated Vietnam to consider major increases in weapons purchases from America, but Washington is reacting to these developments, not leading.

The already-underway 2024 U.S. presidential campaign is likely to turn more on foreign policy and defense matters than most other recent elections. A major land war in Europe, the continuing threats of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and above all China’s growing menace and that of its North Korean sidekick, are increasingly impossible to avoid. The Biden administration’s quiescence, particularly on Asian threats, jeopardizes U.S. national security. Now that it could jeopardize Biden’s political security, perhaps the White House will awaken.

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Written By

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    December 20, 2022 at 11:11 am

    What can biden do. Dementia Joe’s a one-track mind. No ability to multi-task.

    Right now, biden is trying to topple both russia and putin, so he’s going to leave north korea on the back burner.

    Problem is, biden’s never going to succeed in upending russia, amd his dream to finish off putin is likely to take forever to accomplish.

  2. GhostTomahawk

    December 20, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    What can Biden do? More sanctions? Please. If we aren’t going to commit militarily then ignore these clowns. Sanctions flat don’t work.

    Like Russia in Ukraine. Are sanctions working? No. What’s happening there is America has spent more money than Russias annual military budget… to get a stalemate that’s causing Ukraine to have a massive population drop.. forever.

    Let’s stop meddling on geopolitics. We suck at it. Because we aren’t interested in helping people. We are helping the globalist corporations that act as puppeteers to our mafia style oligarchy that is the Federal Govt.

  3. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    December 20, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    Literally, everything this demented meat puppet has done has been a huge mistake, why break the mold now?

  4. John

    December 20, 2022 at 12:29 pm

    We have our heads in the sand. GOP too.
    We need to help our allies including SK and Japan to go nuclear.
    Need multifold improved missile defense.
    Need to increase our deployed nuclear warheads to 5000.
    Nuclear JASSM, Nuclear ARRW, Nuclear Dark Eagle, Nuclear Prompt Global Strike could help to get us there.
    If Mr Bolton has its own ideas, he should share them.

  5. froike

    December 20, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    Biden’s entire Administration is a Circus. Virtually everything they do is a mistake.

  6. Puitn Apologist

    December 20, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    Given the ever accelerating decline of the West in general, and, unfortunately, of America in particular, it was a very wise move on Japan’s part to increase her own defense capabilities. Having said that, I think investing in “500 Tomahawk cruise missiles” was foolish. I say that because not only is the Tomahawk an unnecessary provocation that will elicit a response from the Chinese but the weapon itself, being Cold War era technology, proved ineffective against those modern Syrian and Russian air-defense systems in Syria only a few short years ago. The same systems that the Chinese are buying from the Russians.

    And given Japan’s dependence on the outside to meet her food and fuel needs would it not have been a wiser to spend those monies on securing her sea lanes? I’m thinking anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities. And to deal with the ballistic missile threat, more Aegis systems. With both land and sea based versions. Even if nobody else is willing to to say, I will, Japan needs a nuclear deterrent of her own.

  7. TheDon

    December 20, 2022 at 4:36 pm

    Wasnt this clown involved in this problem for years diring previous administrations? Yes.
    Good old John blames Biden, turns on trump, its always some problem with the leader. Hawk boy Bolton has indeed been involved since Regan was president.
    He’s quick to blame with no solution.
    His opinion is a President cant first make contact with governments to forward peace unless the country meets the John criteria…so it goes on.
    Johns solution to all is sanction and war.
    In a global economy, sanctions mean jobs for other countries to supply goods.
    Once again he has no opinion on how to fix it.
    Let me help.
    1 no chinese goods purchased until kim is gone with nuclear program.
    Every knows chinese are supporting them in missile devolopment.
    .2 shoot every launch down. Its good practice
    3 arm neighbors with nuclear missile sub hunters
    Get tough or make peace.
    Hey John, why dont you grow some and provide a solution to save lives on both sides.

  8. Arash

    December 20, 2022 at 7:44 pm

    John Bolton is a historic mistake.

  9. Newt

    December 21, 2022 at 1:04 am

    Quote of the day: “John Bolton is a historic mistake.” -Arash

  10. CRS, DrPH

    December 21, 2022 at 1:52 am

    At least Biden doesn’t exchange love-letters with Kim Jong Un.

  11. David Chang

    December 21, 2022 at 8:14 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Even if Osama bin Laden don’t say that Joe Biden will destroy U.S.A. , Mr. Biden is not with nerve damage, but accustoms to lie. His eyes reveal evil. And Democratic Party is complice.

    Before troops withdrew from Vietnam, he argue with other people about helping people in Vietnam to withdraw from Saigon.

    And the hearing of Supreme Court Judge Thomas. If his allegation against Judge Thomas is true, he should confess his sexual harassment on woman.

    Moreover, Clinton and Democratic Party help North Korea to get N-fuel and N-weapon, but the congress and senators of Republican don’t stop CBS, CNN and Democratic Party. It’s just like Vietnam and Afghan socialism warfare.

    Avoid socialism warfare with weapons only is not right, and U.S. is been into socialism trap more and more. But weapon is just tool to protect people, not purpose. And strategy is policy, not tactic.

    At such a time in history, we who are free must proclaim our faith. The faith is the abiding creed of our fathers. It is our faith in the deathless dignity of people, as governed by eternal moral and natural laws.

    This faith defines our life. It establishes, beyond debate, the grace of Creator that are the inalienable rights of people, and that make all people equal by God.

    With this equality, we know that morality most cherished by free people — love of truth, pride of work, devotion to people, worship to God — all are treasures equally precious in the lives of the most humble and of the most exalted. The people who mine coal and fire furnaces, and balance ledgers, and turn lathes, and pick cotton, and heal the sick and plant corn — all serve as humble and as profitably for America as the statesmen who draft treaties.

    This faith rules our life. It decrees that we, the people, elect leaders not to rule but to serve. It asserts that we have the right to choice of our own work and to the reward of our own toil. It inspires the initiative that makes our productivity the wonder of the world. And it warns that any man who seeks to deny equality among all people betrays the spirit of the free and invites the mockery of unbeliever.

    It is because we, all of us, obey these moral principles that the political changes accomplished this day do not imply turbulence, upheaval, or disorder. Rather, this change expresses a purpose of strengthening our dedication and devotion to the precepts of our founding documents, a conscious renewal of faith in our country and in the watchfulness of a Divine Providence. The enemies of this faith know no god but force, no devotion but its use. They tutor people in treason to God. They feed upon the hunger of others. Whatever defies them, they torture, especially the truth.

    God bless America.

  12. Neofeudalfuture

    December 25, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    John Bolton.

    Bwhahahahaha

    Umm ok, whatever he says, No. Just No. Stop and go away John Bolton, your the worst.

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