Approximately halfway into his first term, President Joe Biden has been given a wake-up call from Kim Jong Un that North Korea continues to remain a primary national security threat. Some policymakers, pundits, the press, and the public are concerned the administration has placed insufficient focus on in the first two years he has been in office due to the strategic competition with China, tensions over Taiwan and South China Sea, Putin’s War in Ukraine, and the threats emanating from Iran.
Adding to these challenges are Kim Jong Un’s new major policy directions for 2023 that he laid out at the plenary session of the ruling Korean Worker’s Party meeting. He announced that he plans to exponentially increase his nuclear arsenal and develop a new ICBM in 2023. He also characterized South Korea as his “undoubted enemy.” With Kim announcing his new policies, it is time for the U.S. and the ROK/U.S. alliance to implement a new strategy.
Such rhetoric is emblematic of Kim Jong Un’s tried and true political warfare tactics in employing hostility and aggression to gradually alter the status quo and extort concessions from South Korea and the U.S. to divide and break the ROK/U.S. alliance. Kim Jong Un backs his political warfare tactics with military provocations such as ballistic missile tests, of which he conducted a record more than seventy in 2022.
Biden Should Evaluate North Korea Strategy
For the remainder of his first term, the Biden administration should focus on crafting a superior political warfare strategy in tandem with the ROK Government as the ROK/U.S. alliance remains the linchpin to the peace and security of Northeast Asia and the wider INDOPACIFIC. Such a strategy will integrate various forms of pressure that leverage diplomatic, economic sanctions, cyber tools, and information and influence activities to impose enough cost to show Kim Jong Un that seeking nuclear weapons is more costly than beneficial. More importantly, such actions must influence the elite and military leaders as well as the Korean people in the north that Kim Jong Un’s strategy has failed and that they can exert the only kind of pressure that could force Kim to change, pressure from within.
At the start of 2023 it is important to note that Kim’s seemingly increasing hostility reflects how his strategic failures have piled up since 2017. He failed to extort concessions of sanctions relief at the Hanoi summit and his regime’s failing economy continues to suffer following its self-imposed isolation due to the COVID 19 pandemic.
All four Presidents: Trump, Moon, Yoon, and Biden deserve credit in remaining resolute in maintaining all sanctions. This is despite North Korean threats, increased tension, and provocations, sanctions evasions activities with Chinese and Russian complicity. They correctly ignored the calls from pundits who do not understand the nature, objectives, and strategy of the Kim family regime to lift sanctions as an incentive to bring Kim to the negotiating table.
Sanctions are essential in obstructing illicit cash flows that fuel the Kim regime. Escapees note that the lack of sanctions relief is one of the most significant failures of the Kim family regime since 1953.
President Biden correctly further extended North Korean sanctions in June 2021. Kim’s failures in turn have led to some of Kim’s worst domestic problems that pose the potential for internal instability. Mitigating this requires Kim to “externalize” threats. This is evident in labeling South Korea as the “undoubted enemy” and reminding Koreans in the north of the pressing need to ”exponentially increase their nuclear capabilities” in his speech during the plenary session of the ruling worker’s party congress. These statements clearly indicate that Kim will not give up his nuclear and missile programs. However, the most important reason for not providing Kim Jong Un concessions is that in doing so Kim would assess that his political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies are successful. Rather than negotiating in good faith he will continue these strategies because he will believe they work.
The Biden administration deserves credit for continuing scheduled military exercises of the ROK/U.S. Combined Force Command to restore readiness due to the previous decision to cancel exercises in 2018 when the former president referred to exercises as “provocative and expensive war games.”
Readiness was also reduced by the COVID pandemic. Maintaining Alliance military readiness is the number one priority to demonstrate the Alliance’s combined resolve in the face of North Korean provocations and to deter war.
South Korea Participates
South Korea is continuing to improve its military capabilities. It has established the Directorate of Countering Nuclear and WMD, which it said will lay the foundation for a new command. Building on the directorate, the South Korean military plans to launch the strategic command – an overarching entity spearheading overall operations against the North’s nuclear and WMD challenges.
The military continues to develop the three-pronged system consisting of the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, an operational plan to incapacitate the North Korean leadership in a major conflict; the Kill Chain preemptive strike platform; and the Korea Air and Missile Defense system. At the same time, the U.S. has continued to deploy strategic assets to the region to contribute to extended deterrence.
The foundation of deterrence and defense is absolutely critical for the alliance, moving forward with a new strategy. Kim Jong Un is not stupid. He will not attack in the face of strength unless he deems that he has no other option. This actually provides the alliance with the freedom of action to execute a superior political warfare strategy.
Although denuclearization of the north remains a worthy goal, it must be viewed as aspirational as long as the Kim family regime remains in power. The conventional wisdom has always been that denuclearization must come first and then unification will follow. To accomplish this, it has also been said there should be no discussion of human rights out of fear that it would prevent Kim Jong Un from making a denuclearization agreement.
Today even a blind man can read the tea leaves and know that Kim Jong Un will not denuclearize, even though his policies have been an abject failure. His political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies completely failed in 2022 because Presidents Yoon and Biden, like their predecessors, refused to make the political and economic concessions he demanded just to come to the negotiating table: namely to remove sanctions.
Recently a group of authors produced a new strategy recommendation that is based on the realization that Kim Jong Un will not agree to denuclearization. It is a strategy that focuses on human rights and influence operations, and provides a framework for dealing with north Korea as it really is rather than as some would wish it to be. It offers a new path forward because it is time for the U.S. and the ROK/U.S. alliance to execute a political warfare strategy that flips the conventional wisdom and seeks unification first and then denuclearization. It allows Kim the option to change or be changed from within due to his own failures in the eyes of the elite, the military, and the Korean people in the north.
The international community must understand that the only way to end the nuclear program and the human rights abuses is through unification of the Korean peninsula. The ROK and U.S. must continue to maintain the highest state of military readiness to deter war and then adopt a human rights upfront approach, a comprehensive and sophisticated information and influence activities campaign, and focus all efforts on the pursuit of a free and unified Korea – ultimately leading to a United Republic of Korea (UROK).
Expert Biographies and Expertise
Mathew Ha is a political science PhD student at George Mason University’s Schar school of Policy and Government, he is a former research analyst focused on North Korea and China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies n former analyst from Valens Global. His area of expertise includes U.S. foreign policy in Asia and North Korean cyber operations and sanctions policy.
David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea), and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.