SEOUL -- The Biden administration has beefed up its North Korea team with the appointment this week of Jung Pak, a Korean American scholar and former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department.
Pak's appointment comes as talks between the U.S. and North Korea remain stalemated and Pyongyang continues to bolster its nuclear and missile arsenal. A critic of former President Donald Trump's showy summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, she argues that Washington should keep sanctions on the isolated nation to achieve full denuclearization.
Pak will work under Acting Assistant Secretary Sung Kim, who is also a Korean American as well as a former ambassador to Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea.
Pak grew up in New York City and graduated from Colgate University. She was a Fulbright Scholar at Yonsei University in Seoul before working as a history professor at Hunter College in New York from 2006 to 2008.
She boasts an impressive track record as an analyst on both North and South Korea. From 2014 to 2016, she served as a deputy national intelligence officer at the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. During her time working for the DNI, Pak led the U.S. intelligence community's production of strategic analysis on Korean Peninsula issues.
Pak has also held senior roles in the CIA, where she won awards for her analytic accomplishments and service, and until recently was a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution's Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
Besides her intelligence work, Pak holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Columbia University. Through her analysis of North Korea, she repeatedly emphasizes the need to learn from past experiences, negotiations and failures in order to improve future policy and strategy.
She used her training as a historian to write a book about the North Korean leader titled "Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer's Insights into North Korea's Enigmatic Young Dictator," which was published last year.
Unlike other intelligence analysts dealing with North Korea, she advocates a more holistic approach in dealing with Kim. She argues that he is a rational actor who does not want war with the U.S., but is also unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons easily.
She explains in her book that nuclear weapons are a part of Kim's identity. She argues that Kim is even less likely than his predecessors to give up his country's nuclear program, as giving up the weapons for economic benefits would be seen as the ultimate betrayal of his predecessors.
According to Pak, Kim wants economic prosperity, but he wants it on his terms, with development not coming at the cost of his power. This is where the Trump administration went wrong, her analysis shows. Trump assumed that, given the dire state of North Korea's economy, Kim would be willing to trade his nuclear weapons for an attractive package of economic benefits provided by the U.S.
She says that any officials dealing with North Korea must be careful not to let their own assumptions or preferences be confused with what Kim wants.
Pak has also criticized Trump's decision to stray from his original "maximum pressure" approach by agreeing to in-person summits with Kim and not being tough enough on the enforcement of sanctions.
"Sanctions are there to keep us safe," she said in an interview with Channel News Asia last August. Through Trump's decisions over the past few years, she argues that U.S. policy shifted from "maximum pressure" to "maximum flexibility." As a result, Kim has become more emboldened, she argues.
Besides sanctions, she has also advocated for restoring the position of special envoy for human rights in North Korea and for Washington to take a more proactive stance on dealing with Pyongyang's human rights violations.
Regarding future North Korea policy, Pak emphasizes the need to strengthen alliances -- a position Biden supports. "Alliances are our bread and butter in terms of dealing with North Korea," Pak said during a webinar with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress last June.
To this point, "Washington and its allies -- especially Tokyo and Seoul -- need to stay on the same page. Any real or perceived fissures or doubts about U.S. credibility and commitments will play to Kim's advantage," she argued in a piece for the May/June 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs.
Pak maintains that Washington's chief objective must continue to be the complete dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons arsenal.
In her Foreign Affairs piece she argued: "Until it is clear that Kim is willing to consider serious negotiations over his nuclear weapons program and meaningful engagement with the United States and his neighbors -- and not just hollow summitry -- Washington should hold off on any grand gestures."