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Biden's Asia policy

North Korea goes missing from Biden's big foreign policy speech

National security team weighs options as threat rises

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, attends the congress of his ruling Workers' Party congress in Pyongyang in this photo supplied by the official Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 10.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Conspicuously absent from U.S. President Joe Biden's maiden address on foreign policy Thursday was an Asian nuclear power that has confounded administrations for decades: North Korea.

In his speech at the State Department, Biden called for countering an increasingly ambitious China and the determination of Russia to harm and disrupt American democracy. He spoke of rebuilding "atrophied" alliances with such democracies as Japan, South Korea and Australia.

But he made no mention of North Korea, which experts believe has increased the scope and sophistication of its nuclear, missile and conventional forces, despite multiple summits between leader Kim Jong Un and Biden's immediate predecessor, Donald Trump.

Just ahead of Biden's speech, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was asked by a reporter at a White House briefing whether the administration has any intention of continuing the steps Trump took toward Kim.

"We are conducting a review of our policy towards North Korea as we speak," Sullivan replied. He added that Biden had told South Korean President Moon Jae-in the night before that the review is underway and that Washington will consult closely with allies, particularly Seoul and Tokyo. "And I'm not going to get ahead of that review," he said.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks in a press briefing at the White House on Feb. 4.   © AP

American policy on North Korea is said to combine deterrence, containment, pressure and diplomacy. No past U.S. administration has found the right mix of ingredients, which may be why the Biden team is in no rush.

Then-President George W. Bush took a harder line in the 2000s toward Pyongyang than immediate predecessor Bill Clinton had. Bush lumped North Korea in with Iraq and Iran as part of the three-way "axis of evil," imposing new sanctions. Bush's immediate successor, Barack Obama, tried being less confrontational.

The Trump administration touted "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang before Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader. Trump and Kim exchanged multiple letters thereafter.

"Over the years, the United States has tried diplomatic engagement, humanitarian assistance, security guarantees, sanctions relaxation, summit meetings, and reducing allied military deterrent, all to no avail," wrote Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank, in a recent policy paper.

In a half-hour phone call between Biden and Moon this week, the two leaders "shared a common understanding that it is necessary to jointly devise a comprehensive strategy toward North Korea at the earliest date possible," South Korea's presidential Blue House said. Biden said it is important for the two allies to be on the same page regarding North Korea. This marked a departure from Trump, who liked to deal directly with Kim.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed on the need to jointly form a comprehensive strategy on North Korea. (Photo courtesy of South Korean Office of the President)

But as the Biden administration takes its time coordinating with friends, there is no guarantee that the North Koreans will avoid provocative acts.

"North Korea may not initially be a predominant focus of the administration, but Pyongyang does not like to be ignored," wrote Klingner, also a former deputy division chief for Korea at the Central Intelligence Agency.

A small-scale joint exercise planned by the U.S. and South Korea for March may prove a catalyst for the North to resume missile launches. Joint exercises were canceled in the Trump era to create breathing room for diplomatic talks. Pyongyang has long denounced such drills as a rehearsal for invasion.

Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank, said the fact that some Pentagon and State Department officials still await Senate confirmation may partly explain why policies have not been announced. Noting such positions as undersecretaries and assistant secretaries for policy and Asia, Cronin told Nikkei Asia that "they will want to sign off on any North Korea policy."

Even if they are confirmed swiftly, they have no model of success.

"Balance and comprehension will be standard for Biden, but Matt Pottinger did devise a detailed classified strategy on North Korea designed to ramp up pressure to force Pyongyang to choose diplomacy" over more nuclear weapons, Cronin said. "As we know, that did not work out so well."

Cronin was referring to the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, declassified in the final weeks of the Trump administration. Originally classified by Pottinger, then senior director for Asia on Trump's National Security Council, it echoed the goals of previous administrations by setting out to convince the Kim regime that "the only path to its survival is to relinquish its nuclear weapons."

Maximizing pressure on Pyongyang using economic, diplomatic, military, law enforcement, intelligence and information tools was the stated course of action. The idea was to cripple North Korea's programs for weapons of mass destruction, choke off currency flows, and weaken the regime.

Spearheading the Biden administration's North Korea policy will be Korean American scholar and former CIA analyst Jung Pak, who has been tapped as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

"For decades, every incoming U.S. president has inherited a more dangerous North Korea than his predecessor," Klingner warned in his paper. "President Biden is no exception."

Pyongyang is producing a new generation of advanced mobile missiles that are more accurate and are mobile and solid-fueled, making them harder to locate and target, Klingner wrote.

The regime is said to be able to create fissile materials for seven to 12 nuclear warheads per year, according to estimates he cited.

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