Experts say the Biden administration faces limited options for dealing with North Korea unless it drastically changes its course as Pyongyang considers the resumption of nuclear and long-range missile tests.
Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, said, “The only way out of a crisis would be for [President] Joe Biden to give an address on North Korea and lay out a more coherent policy [other] than, ‘Let’s talk.’ ”
He continued, “Biden would have to lay out a vision for what a new relationship with North Korea could look like, but more importantly, what the DPRK would get in a potential deal, or at least what both sides would be bartering over in talks.” The DPRK refers to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Earlier this week, regime leader Kim Jong Un suggested the possibility of ending a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that North Korea imposed in 2018 when Pyongyang was engaged in talks with Washington.
Kim, gathered with officials at the regime’s Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday, said the country will “examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” according to a statement released by state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Thursday.
Kim made a similar announcement in 2019, stating he was no longer bound by the moratorium, but did nothing.
Experts, however, think this time North Korea is likely to restart nuclear and ICBM tests.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the announcement “appears a clear indication that [Pyongyang] is gearing up for ICBM and/or nuclear tests.”
Evans Revere, a former State Department official who has extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, “The Biden administration has little choice but to make clear to North Korea that there would be severe consequences if Pyongyang resumes nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing.”
The U.S. responded to North Korea’s recent threat of resuming the tests by stating it is committed to dialogue with North Korea while at the same time calling for international sanctions on the regime. Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have remained deadlocked since October 2019.
A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday that the U.S. “remains prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy without preconditions” to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The same day, at a U.N. Security Council closed-door meeting, the U.S. proposed that international sanctions be placed on North Koreans whom the U.S. unilaterally sanctioned last week for assisting in development of the country’s weapons program. The proposal is being held up by China and Russia.
Experts think the dual measures of pursuing dialogue and calling for U.N. sanctions have run their course and mean little to North Korea.
North Korea has largely ignored the U.S. offer to talk as it ratcheted up tension by testing two rounds of what it called hypersonic missiles on January 5 and 11 and two rounds of short-range ballistic missiles on January 14 and 17.
Time to change course
Revere said there is “little prospect for a diplomatic dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang” as “Pyongyang has no interest in such a discussion” on denuclearization.
Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said the resumption of North Korea’s border crossings with China this week would render U.S. efforts to place U.N. sanctions on the regime ineffective.
After virtually sealing the border in January 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, Pyongyang’s freight trains have made multiple trips to Dandong, China, since Sunday, apparently transporting goods into North Korea amid shortages of food and other supplies.
Gause said as the North Koreans “build up their cross-border relationship, it does alleviate some of the economic pressure that they would have to face if there are additional sanctions.”
At the same time, China and Russia are unlikely to support U.N. sanctions on North Korea because, according to Gause, their “relationship with the U.S. right now is in a very adversarial state, in terms of the great power competition.”
Hyeongjoo Park contributed to this report.