President Biden may soon be forced to take action amid threats from an increasingly aggressive North Korea, which has flexed its military might in recent days with provocative missile launches.
Biden, who has taken a more subdued approach to Pyongyang compared to his predecessor, former President Trump, has long called for open dialogue over a host of issues between the two nations without preconditions.
The administration has taken no steps to entice North Korea to begin such talks – which the isolated nation has roundly rejected – but Pyongyang’s reported launching of at least two hypersonic, ballistic missiles this month are challenging Biden’s current stance.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday called Pyongyang’s latest missile tests “profoundly destabilizing” and stated that the administration is working in close coordination with South Korea, Japan and the United Nations on a response.
“We are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea,” Blinken said in an interview with MSNBC.
Experts say the Biden administration’s focus on North Korea has dropped on its list of international priorities. Other challenges, like Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine, reviving the nuclear deal with Iran and the fallout over the U.S.’s violent exit from Afghanistan, have required more immediate attention.
“The desire to start a new diplomatic campaign to engage North Korea beyond what has already been on the table – that North Korea has not picked up – the appetite for that is pretty low,” said Jacob Stokes, a Fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
“Ultimately, because there’s a number of other things going on.”
Stokes said that the Biden administration’s strategy towards North Korea is seeking to strike a balance between that of the Obama administration – dubbed “strategic patience,” withholding high level engagement until Pyongyang changes its behavior – and that of the Trump administration. Trump held two unsuccessful face-to-face meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“The Biden administration, their policy is nominally trying to strike a balance between those two poles,” Stokes said. “The Biden administration is clearly ready to sit down with North Korean officials, whether that’s actually in person or virtually, but North Korea has been reluctant to come to the table.”
The reclusive nation has long held out against pressure and overture from the U.S. to discuss its nuclear weapons. Yet Biden officials are saying it won’t ignore Pyongyang’s ongoing missile tests, the latest of which took place on Jan. 10.
The Treasury Department on Wednesday issued sanctions against five North Korean nationals that it says are involved in procuring goods for Pyongyang’s weapons program and that it said were issued in response to at least six ballistic missile launches carried out by North Korea since September 2021.
These are likely to include reported launches on Jan. 10 of an advanced hypersonic ballistic missile, another hypersonic missile test on Jan. 5, a submarine-launched ballistic missile in October and launching long-range cruise missiles on Sept. 11 and 12.
U.S. agencies are still analyzing the most recent test, which caused the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily pause some West Coast flights, but little else has been revealed on the launch. The Pentagon on Thursday declined to comment on what type of missile it has assessed the armament to be.
Ankit Panda, Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that while the missile tests are provocative, they are not necessarily a direct challenge to Pyongyang’s neighbors or the U.S.
“I think the North Koreans are primarily conducting these tests for research and development purposes,” he said, adding that they are part of a policy pronounced by Kim last year that he wanted a range of new technologies tested.
“So the North Koreans have been going ahead and doing that.”
Panda also echoed the Biden administration’s lack of focus of the North Korea issue, calling the delay in nominating a U.S. ambassador to South Korea a “big oversight.”
“I was in Seoul in November and that was brought up quite a bit as a sign that the Biden administration is generally disinterested in Korea issues, so my hope is that they will rectify that soon, reportedly they’re looking for the right person,” he said.
Biden announced in May that Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, would also take on the role of U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea. While the appointment served as a positive signal of focus on the Korean peninsula, Panda said that the dual hats amounted to focus on North Korea as a “part time” job.
“It makes sense for him to be part time just given that the North Koreans are very much not looking to engage in diplomacy right now,” he said. “The staffing issue does matter but I do think that the sources of disinterest in North Korea are deeper right now.”
While South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who will finish out his presidential term in May, has viewed advancing peaceful relations with the North as a defining part of his legacy, a key goal of achieving an “end-of-war” declaration with Pyongyang has also stalled.
“That hasn’t really gone anywhere. The South Koreans have made a few statements that everybody’s agreed in principle, but that’s something we really knew for a while,” Panda said.
The Korean War, which began in 1950, ended in an armistice in 1953.
Moon’s “end-of-war” declaration is not a peace treaty, but considered an important political statement as part of advancing relations on the peninsula.
More concerning, Panda pointed out, is whether a victory by South Korea’s conservative presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl is likely to ignite tensions in the area.
Yoon has signaled a more hawkish stance when approaching the North, saying in an interview that he supported launching a preemptive strike on Pyongyang if Seoul is found to be threatened with missiles loaded with nuclear warheads.
“If a conservative, and specifically Yoon Seok-youl… were to win, that would be a pretty significant development because it would actually change, I think, South Korean’s orientation a bit,” Panda said, “and it might actually lead the North Koreans to then consider staging direct provocations against South Korea in the pursuit of advantage later this year, or potentially in the years to come.”
Japan, meanwhile, has expressed deep concern about the missile launches and is engaged in its own national debate over how to best to shore up its defenses. Tokyo has emphasized close cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea in confronting North Korea’s actions.
“Cooperation between Japan and the US, as well as among Japan, the US and South Korea is extremely important in dealing with North Korea,” Masashi Mizobuchi, spokesperson for the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C., said in a statement to The Hill.
“Our three countries have been working closely together, in cooperation with the international community, to promote the full implementation of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and to achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea.”
The most likely response is an increase in sanctions on North Korea, but Panda said Pyongyang has isolated itself to such an extreme degree in response to the pandemic that it’s unlikely any more outside pressure is going to change its behavior.
“The pandemic has imposed more economic pain on North Korea than we could have ever hoped to do with our sanctions,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty clear indicator that they’re willing to sustain tremendous amounts of economic pain… and they’ll still find a way to push ahead with their nuclear missile capabilities which they deem to be absolutely essential for their survival.”
Ellen Mitchell contributed to this report.