For decades, U.S. policy makers have asked, “How do we get North Korea to give up nuclear weapons?” and have come up empty-handed. As the Biden administration prepares to take office, perhaps it’s time to ask a different question: “How do we get to peace with North Korea?”
Here’s the dilemma facing Washington. On the one hand, the U.S. doesn’t want to allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons because that may encourage other countries to do the same. (Washington is already busy trying to halt Iran’s nuclear ambition, while a growing number of conservative voices in Japan and South Korea are also calling for acquiring their own nukes.)
The U.S. has tried to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons through pressure and sanctions, but that approach has backfired, hardening Pyongyang’s resolve to hone its nuclear and missile technology. North Korea says the only way it will give up its nuclear weapons is if the U.S. “abandons its hostile policy,” — in other words, takes reciprocal steps toward arms reduction — but so far, Washington has made no moves nor indicated any intention of moving toward that goal. In fact, the Trump administration continued to conduct joint war drills with South Korea and tightened enforcement of sanctions against North Korea despite its commitment in Singapore to make peace with Pyongyang.
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Enter Joe Biden. How will his team resolve this dilemma? Repeating the same failed approach and expecting a different result would be — well, you know how the saying goes.
Biden’s advisers are in consensus that the Trump administration’s “all or nothing” approach — demanding upfront that North Korea give up all its weapons — has failed. Instead, they recommend an “arms control approach”: first freezing North Korea’s plutonium and uranium nuclear operations and then taking incremental steps toward the ultimate goal of complete denuclearization.
This is the preferred approach of secretary of state nominee Anthony Blinken, who advocates an interim deal to cap North Korea’s nuclear weapons to buy time to work out a long-term agreement. He says we should get allies and China on board to pressure North Korea: “squeeze North Korea to get it to the negotiating table.” “We need to cut off its various avenues and access to resources,” he says, and advocates telling countries with North Korean guest workers to send them home. If China won’t cooperate, Blinken suggests that the U.S. threaten it with more forward-deployed missile defense and military exercises.
Blinken’s proposal is barely different from the failed approach of the past. It’s still a policy of pressure and isolation to get to the ultimate goal of unilaterally disarming North Korea — the only difference being that the Biden administration is willing to take more time getting there. In this case, North Korea will likely continue to press forward on its nuclear weapons and missile capability. Unless the U.S. drastically shifts its position, renewed tension between the U.S. and North Korea is inevitable.
Instead of focusing on how to get North Korea to give up its nukes, asking how to reach permanent peace in Korea may lead to a different and more fundamental set of answers. All parties — not just North Korea — have a responsibility to take steps toward mutual arms reduction.
After all, the U.S. still has 28,000 troops in South Korea, and until recently, regularly conducted massive war exercises that included plans for preemptive strikes on North Korea. Past joint war drills have included flying B-2 bombers, which are designed to drop nuclear bombs and cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $130,000 an hour to fly. Although the U.S. and South Korea have scaled back their exercises since the Trump-Kim summit in 2018, the Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, has called for the resumption of the large-scale joint war drills.
If the Biden administration moves ahead with the war drills next March, it would renew dangerous military tension on the Korean Peninsula and harm any chance for diplomatic engagement with North Korea in the near future.
How to Get to Peace on the Korean Peninsula
To reduce the threat of nuclear war with North Korea and preserve the option of resuming talks in the future, the Biden administration can do two things in its first 100 days: one, continue the suspension of the large-scale U.S.-South Korean joint war drills; and two, start a strategic review of its North Korea policy that begins with the question, “How do we get to permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula?”
An essential part of establishing permanent peace is ending the Korean War, which has remained unresolved for 70 years, and replacing the armistice (a temporary ceasefire) with a permanent peace agreement. This is what the two Korean leaders agreed to do in their historic Panmunjom Summit in 2018, and the idea has the support of 52 members of the U.S. Congress who co-sponsored House Resolution 152, calling for a formal end of the Korean War. Seventy years of unresolved war has not only fueled a perpetual arms race among the parties to the conflict, it has also created an impenetrable border between the two Koreas that has kept millions of families apart. A peace agreement that commits all parties to a gradual process of laying down their arms would create peaceful conditions for the two Koreas to resume cooperation and reunite separated families.
Many people in the U.S. think North Korea doesn’t want peace, but looking back at its past statements reveals otherwise. For example, following the Korean War, which had ended in an armistice in 1953, North Korea was part of the Geneva Conference, convened by the Four Powers — the United States, the former U.S.S.R., the United Kingdom and France — to discuss the future of Korea. According to a declassified report by the U.S. Delegation, then-North Korean Foreign Minister Nam Il stated at this conference that the “Principal task is achieving Korean unity by converting [the] armistice into lasting peaceful reunification [of] Korea on democratic principles.” He blamed the U.S. “for responsibilities in the division of Korea as well as for holding separate elections under ‘police pressure.’” (U.S. officers Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel had divided Korea along the 38th parallel in 1945 without consulting any Koreans, and the U.S. had pushed for a separate election in the south even though most Koreans had desired a unified, independent Korea.) Nevertheless, Nam continued, the “1953 armistice now opened [the] way to peaceful unification.” He recommended the withdrawal of all foreign forces within six months and an “agreement on all-Korea elections to establish a government representing the whole country.”
The Geneva Conference unfortunately ended without an agreement on Korea, due in large part to U.S. opposition to Nam’s proposal. Consequently, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the Koreas hardened into an international border.
North Korea’s basic position — that the armistice should be replaced by a peace agreement that “opens the way to peaceful unification” — has been consistent for the past 70 years. That’s what the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea proposed to the U.S. Senate back in 1974. That’s what was contained in a North Korean letter delivered by former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to U.S. President Ronald Reagan in their summit in Washington in 1987. That’s also what the North Koreans repeatedly brought up in their nuclear negotiations with the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
The Biden administration should look back at — and acknowledge — the agreements the U.S. has already signed with North Korea. The U.S.-DPRK Joint Communique (signed by the Clinton administration in 2000), the Six-Party Joint Statement (signed by the Bush administration in 2005) and the Singapore Joint Statement (signed by President Trump in 2018) all have three goals in common: establish normal relations, build a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The Biden team needs a road map that clearly outlines the relationship between these three important goals.
The Biden administration certainly faces many pressing issues that will demand its immediate attention, but ensuring that the U.S.-North Korea relationship doesn’t slide back to the brinkmanship that brought us to the edge of the nuclear abyss in 2017 should be a top priority.