May 18, 2021, 1:30 p.m.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet US President Joe Biden later this week. Even before the critical meeting, Moon did not wait to give advice on how to deal with North Korea. In an interview with the New York Times, Moon urged Biden to engage Pyongyang because denuclearization is a "question of survival".
But the task of rid Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons is becoming increasingly difficult. As NBC reported, "After decades of sanctions, threats and diplomacy, including Trump's flashy peaks, North Korea has more nuclear weapons than ever and missiles that can hit the US." According to the Rand Corporation and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons by the end of the decade.
This leaves the USA at the negotiating table again. Biden has expressed interest in working with North Korea and has reacted calmly to Pyongyang's short-range missile tests. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius quoted the usual unnamed "senior government official" as saying, "The likelihood that North Korea will abandon nuclear weapons is close to zero." The latter suggested that the government accepted that denuclearization was out of reach and attempted mini-deals on issues such as proliferation and new weapon systems.
This is a sensible strategy – perhaps the only one possible. And it shouldn't be delayed. While North Korea lacks the resources to develop and manufacture all of the weapons on leader Kim Jong Un's well-publicized wish list, Pyongyang has demonstrated a surprising ability to overcome poverty and sanctions in order to become a capable nuclear power is to target the continental United States.
International sanctions only go so far, especially given Beijing's indifference to actually enforcing them. North Korea has survived essentially self-sanctions for more than a year due to its isolation caused by pandemics. Although Kim has warned of another "arduous march," North Korea has apparently started to reopen, at least for consumer goods. NK News reported that overseas groceries and soft drinks are returning to stores.
Of course, it's possible the skeptics are right: Kim isn't ready to make a deal. Despite not being a liberal, Kim seems genuinely committed to economic growth. How else would he go beyond a modern version of militarized Prussia once described as an army with a country rather than a country with an army? China has also been frustrated for decades that North Korea is not following its example and not opening up enough to spur growth. Kim's limited economic openings are approved in Beijing. This points to another factor: he has proven to be more interested and more diplomatic than his predecessors, from dealing with Chinese President Xi Jinping to his half competition, half his wooing for former US President Donald Trump. He is not a copy of his father or grandfather. although everything he does and says should be treated with a reasonable degree of skepticism.
Above all, there is no better alternative to negotiation. Some critics have suggested that greater "maximum pressure" could get North Korea going, but weathering COVID-19 isolation has proven otherwise. In addition, the Trump administration's efforts to force the governments of Iran, Syria and Venezuela to surrender by similarly starving their people to death have failed. These policies also ignore the moral brutality of targeting victims in order to achieve preferred policy goals – and Beijing's likely willingness to provide food and oil in sufficient quantities to keep North Korea independent.
Another argument is the threat of war and the use of military pressure – in addition to sanctions that come with promises of good things from the post-denuclearization United States – could cause Kim to get clean. But only if he forgets Washington's long string of selfish lies and broken promises to other threatened regimes, from Libya's handover of missile and nuclear programs, followed by the fall and death of its leader, to Washington's withdrawal from its joint comprehensive plan of action with Iran . If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, one can imagine Uncle Sam playing Darth Vader in Star Wars: “I'm changing the deal. Pray that I won't change it any further. "
Violence is always an option, of course. In this case, it's just a brutally stupid thing. The belief is expressed that North Korea, which is generally paranoid and particularly fearful of executive beheading attempts, would joylessly allow the United States to destroy its major military assets without responding. However, a full-scale war would be catastrophic under the best of circumstances and, depending on Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities, could kill millions of people.
Granted, there are US politicians who don't seem to care about the death of the Koreans. For example, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham affirmed, "If thousands die, they will die over there. They will not die here." Such attitudes would likely convince any conservative South Korean government to use armed forces in South Korea to attack banned in the US. Indeed, this would not be a new policy. Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called South Korea a "balancer" and insisted that his permission for the US to use South Korean bases for regional military operations was required.
This leaves diplomacy the only option, no matter how unsatisfactory it may be.
The Biden administration is very busy, but North Korea is an issue that is not long in coming. Biden should have a suggested strategy ready to discuss with Moon before he arrives. There is no time to waste – and talking is the only way out.