With the United States and NATO tangling with Russia over Ukraine, and China hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing, North Korea may not be an immediate priority for any of the great powers. But, as the past few weeks have demonstrated, the North Korean nuisance will not take care of itself.
This January, North Korea conducted seven ballistic missile tests, the most recorded in a single month. We have seen these patterns before. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ “Beyond Parallel” database, in a one-month period beginning in late July 2019, North Korea also conducted seven short-range missile tests. In September 2021, North Korea conducted five missile tests.
In this context, it might be tempting to dismiss the recent volley of missile testing as part of a routine cycle of provocations. But that logic only normalizes North Korea’s behavior. Instead, the United States should craft a measured response that brings North Korea to the table and charts a path to a sustainable de-escalation.
To its credit, the Biden administration has made some effort to address the problem. Since this past spring, it has reached out to Pyongyang multiple times, offering to restart talks “anywhere, anytime without preconditions”. Yet North Korea has mostly ignored U.S. overtures for engagement and rejected global offers of covid-19 vaccines. After a six-month lull, short-range missile tests resumed last year on Sept. 11.
Pyongyang has demanded that Washington drop its “hostile policy” toward the regime. What it most likely wants in the short term is sanctions relief to boost its economy, which has taken a dive since the country closed its borders in early 2020 because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is waiting for North Korea to take credible steps toward denuclearization.
The window for a solution is closing. It is only a matter of time before North Korea resumes long-range missile and nuclear tests. At that point, China and Russia might agree to tighten sanctions, but their impact on an already locked-down North Korea will be marginal. A preemptive strike on select military sites is too risky. Containment or isolation would give the regime more time to hone its weapons capabilities. Finally, doing nothing would grant Kim Jong Un opportunity to increase threats to U.S. allies, U.S. forces and the U.S. homeland, while also escalating tensions in northeast Asia.
That leaves diplomatic engagement as the only option. And it would be better to reach out to North Korea now, before North Korea attempts another nuclear test that it can use to negotiate from a position of strength.
What would it take to draw North Korea out of its shell? First, the United States should work closely with South Korea and Japan, two allies that are much more vulnerable to North Korea’s short-range missile threats. Though Tokyo may be a tough sell, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has met Kim three times, will likely support one final push for diplomatic engagement before he leaves office this year, following South Korea’s presidential election in March.
Second, President Biden could write a personal note to Kim indicating a desire to de-escalate tensions and improve relations. Doing so would not be a promise to return to the high-stakes summitry of the Trump era, which Biden has openly rejected. Rather, it would indicate to Kim that Biden sees him as a formidable leader and possibly soften his stance. This kind of personal approach has been effective with Kim in the past.
Third, in conjunction with global partners, the United States can formally offer medical supplies and covid-19 vaccines as a good-will gesture. The Biden administration has already said these might be offered independent of the denuclearization process. Other low-cost measures that do not compromise regional security, such as ending the travel ban as soon as pandemic conditions permit, may also be in order to better understand conditions in North Korea.
Perhaps the most difficult hurdle for the Biden administration politically is granting North Korea the possibility of limited sanctions relief — enough to permit development assistance and capacity-building projects — in exchange for reciprocal measures toward freezing nuclear and missile production. This would be an interim step toward denuclearization. Though this risks the appearance of capitulation, the United States is in a far more secure position than North Korea to offer such concessions, and the Biden administration could snap back sanctions if Pyongyang conducted further missile or nuclear tests.
The world is facing multiple crises that no doubt require attention and resources. But the United States and the international community cannot afford to neglect North Korea’s provocations. They should find a way to reengage now — because time, unfortunately, is on North Korea’s side.
Andrew Yeo is the SK-Korea Foundation chair and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a professor of politics at Catholic University and author of “State, Society, and Markets in North Korea”.