Harry Kazianis: Joe Biden's North Korea policy is a disaster. Now is the time to get serious

Lack of urgency has resulted in a North Korea policy that has already failed

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The Biden administration lacks any sense of urgency in dealing with North Korea’s growing missile and nuclear weapons programs—weapons that can strike America and could be sold in whole or in part to nations like Iran or other rogue states around the world.

Such lack of urgency has resulted in a North Korea policy that has already failed, throwing away the progress made by then-President Donald Trump.

Despite calling Pyongyang his greatest national security challenge back in March, the Biden Administration, staffed with many of the same officials from the Obama years, has adopted a slightly modified—albeit extremely vague—version of the same sham policy called "strategic patience."

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Strategic patience is essentially Washington-speak for kicking the can down the geopolitical road, nothing more than a sanitized version of appeasement.

The policy demands that North Korea come to the bargaining table first with an offer of serious concessions or making a unilateral move towards dumping their nuclear weapons as a precursor to even talking to Washington. And as North Korea never made such a move, Obama simply washed his hands of the problem.

In an inexcusable twist, the Biden version of strategic patience was never even rolled out in a formal manner. After a multi-month policy review, the Biden team’s North Korea policy was unveiled by Press Secretary Jen Psaki during a press avail in the back of Air Force One in a response to a reporter’s question on North Korea.

Strategic patience is nothing more than a sanitized version of appeasement.

From there, all we have is background quotes in articles from the Washington Post and other outlets that explain the policy, as the Biden Administration has never had an official rollout, and even a speech by President Biden on North Korea policy, despite being in office for ten months.

What we do know of Biden’s North Korea policy is that it entirely hinges on an offer to talk to Pyongyang without any preconditions. However, Team Biden will not tip its hand at all about the focus of the talks, what Washington would be willing to concede, and what they expect from North Korea in return. If North Korea never sits down for talks, Biden does nothing, washing hands of the problem.

No wonder Pyongyang is not exactly eager to enter negotiations and keeps testing missile after missile, as there is no sense of clarity of what Team Biden is driving negotiations towards, or if any sort of deal is remotely possible. No nation would.

This failed policy from the Obama years is the reason why North Korea now has hydrogen bombs that can be mounted to long-range missiles that can destroy U.S. cities. And make no mistake, Biden’s strategy will be the reason Pyongyang acquires cruise, hypersonic and submarine-launched missiles fired from submarines, weapons the North Koreans are starting to test as we speak.

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Now, to be fair, and for many reasons, there is at least some rationale for the Biden Administrations’ lack of interest in taking on a challenge like North Korea and its dangerous weapons program.

The chaos of U.S. politics, COVID-19, an economy grappling with supply chain woes and inflation, and a rising China all conspire to make North Korea’s nuclear arsenal seems like a long-term problem to worry about later.

But know this: such an attitude is the reason why North Korea has such fearsome weapons in the first place. To put it bluntly, with the weapons Pyongyang now pocesses and what they could sell to our adversaries means we are out of the proverbial road to kick this nuclear can down anymore.

In fact, North Korea seems ready to go back to its old, escalatory ways as a response to Washington’s lack of interest.

While sending mixed signals, North Korea—struggling from what is likely mass starvation due to a self-imposed blockade due to fear of a COVID-19 outbreak—feels it must show strength in the fact of Biden’s lack of policy direction. And that can mean only one thing: Pyongyang is back to testing weapons platforms that seem to get ever more advanced by the day.

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a parliament meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a parliament meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP) (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

From there, things could get much worse. Kim could soon even test a new intercontinental ballistic missile, something he personally promised then-President Trump he would not do, setting the stage for a showdown as we saw back in 2017.

The good news is none of this needs to happen.

Now is the time for the Biden Administration to get serious on the North Korea issue, using the Trump Administrations’ template for diplomacy as a blueprint, even if they don’t want to admit it.

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First, the Biden Team needs to actually come out with a real policy when it comes to North Korea. Washington must state clearly and loudly what the focus of those talks would be, what concessions could be on offer by both sides, and what expectations it has in a timetable in operationalizing any agreements. The Trump Team did this well in a mix of leaks to the press, official statements, and direct communications with North Korea

Next, we need to realize that continuing to say over and over again that full denuclearization is the goal and nothing else will do is a pipedream. The Biden team needs to follow what the Trump Administration had hoped for, in that a series of smaller agreements at limiting and eventually capping the North Korean nuclear arsenal for portions of sanctions relief could build trust between both sides. That is the only true way to get any progress towards denuclearization.

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Lastly, any deals with North Korea must ensure that they stop selling any missile, and more importantly, any nuclear technology. Pyongyang has sold countless missile designs to Iran and even tried to build a nuclear reactor for Syria. This is not something that can be allowed to continue.

But perhaps most important of all, President Biden must once again ensure that North Korea gets back on his national security radar and is a focus for this administration. If not, we will face a North Korea that could someday have the ability to destroy nearly every major U.S. city and will sell that technology to the highest bidder. And this is something we cannot ever accept.

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