If you don’t follow North Korea for a living as I do, you likely have forgotten all about the so-called hermit kingdom and its portly pariah of a leader, Kim Jong-un. Sure, there are the occasional headlines. Kim has lost a whole bunch of weight. The country is locked down as it has no way to combat Covid-19 and would never let in the international community to distribute vaccines.
And, of course, there was last night’s missile test.
But even then the media does not seem to care much when it comes to North Korea. The reasons are quite obvious: with the Omicron variant sweeping the world, even a regime such as North Korea’s has trouble breaking into the news cycle. Even though the DPRK is a totalitarian state that keeps its 25 million citizens in what can only be described as a kind of slavery to the Kim family, which holds enough nuclear material to kill millions of people in minutes, the news cycle is just oversaturated. Thus have the expert class, news editors, and bookers in Washington and New York all responded with a collective yawn.
This is what exactly President Joe Biden is hoping they do. You see, Team Biden has no North Korea strategy. Sure, some like to throw around the term “Strategic Patience 2.0,” or claim the same policy as President Barack Obama, whereby if North Korea makes a meaningful first step towards giving up some part of its nuclear weapons program, Washington responds in some meaningful way.
Yet so far the Biden administration has not even offered that. Its only discernible policy has amounted to offering talks to North Korea on any issues and at any time without any preconditions. While that’s all well and good, considering how the last substantive talks went several years ago in Hanoi, with North Korea losing face and gaining nothing from the historic meeting, the DPRK at least wants to know what might be on offer before sitting down at the table. If Kim has no idea what he might be negotiating about, he has no interest in conversations that could cause him serious grief at home when his people are starving.
Again, that all suits Joe Biden just fine. Over the last few years, while not the consensus opinion among all Korea watchers, there has been a growing recognition that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and perhaps its chemical and biological weapons. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe a deal can be struck whereby the DPRK would cap its WMD and missile programs where they are now and even roll back some of its capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief.
Ideally, if the Biden administration could secure a cap and rollback deal with a pledge that the Kims would never sell any of their WMD and missile technology, that would surely be progress. Of course, any deal would need to have enforcement mechanisms in place, but both sides would get a lot of what they wanted. Kim would get the security of nuclear weapons while America and its allies would know that Kim won’t build more for decades, let alone sell such dangerous technology to the highest bidder.
But here is where the practical means the political. Biden, politically, at least for now, has no ability to offer or accept what at least on paper would prevent the North Koreans from growing their WMDs and missiles exponentially and spreading them to nations like Iran. Biden knows that all Republicans — even those who are more realist in their national security thinking — would use his measured approach on North Korea as a line of attack. They would accuse him of appeasement, of allowing a dictator to keep his nuclear weapons and, by default, showing other nations that they too can get atomic arms if only they hold out long enough.
Add in a few Neville Chamberlin lines, Munich comparisons, and other overused appeasement-sounding ideas, and you get the hint. And considering where Biden’s approval ratings are these days, his administration is all too happy to let the North Korea issue stay on hold for as long as it can.
This is why Joe Biden and his national security team want you to forget all about North Korea. However, as with all pandemics, at some point, the Covid-19 crisis will pass, and North Korea will resume its normal pattern of weapons testing and provocations. The Kim family will come out of the pandemic with an economy in tatters, a populace that is hungrier than ever before and in desperate need of sanctions relief. At that point, Joe Biden won’t be able to ignore them any longer.