Beginning of the End for Diplomacy? A Case for U.S-North Korea Engagement Post-IAEA Report

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report, North Korea resumed the 5 MW graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon in July, breaking a hiatus that had been in place since December 2018. This development comes at a time when Washington is preoccupied with Afghanistan and the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, and Pyongyang appears uninterested in engaging American negotiators. As the IAEA report sinks into the minds of the international community, the United States and North Korea are entering a dangerous territory, one that will likely embolden hardliners in Washington who are skeptical of any agreement with North Korea. The question is whether policymakers in both countries understand changes that are taking place within each country or will continue to operate within a self-serving lens that affirm their worst assumptions about each other. 

For months, North Korea analysts in Washington (including this author) have been warning that absent a positive agenda, President Biden will walk into a crisis with nuclear-armed North Korea. Instead of passively waiting for North Korea to initiate dialogue or make nuclear weapons-related concessions up front, Biden should have deployed the full force of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus early on in the administration with a clear end goal in mind, whether it is a political settlement to the Korean War or a gradual relaxing of U.S.-led sanctions as part of a larger tension reduction/denuclearization process. Bold steps in the political or diplomatic realm would have been entirely consistent with the Biden administration’s stated policy of “build[ing] on the Singapore agreement and other previous agreements” and Biden’s vision to make diplomacy the center of U.S. foreign policy. It also would have breathed life into the moribund Inter-Korean cooperation such as building of inter-Korean railways as pledged in the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. 

Instead, President Biden has taken a decidedly low-profile approach to this issue. The president has not made a single speech about North Korea since taking office or clearly laid out to the American people what is at stake, despite his rhetoric at his first press conference stating that North Korea is the U.S.’s top foreign policy challenge. His Special Representative for North Korea Policy and U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Sung Kim is virtually invisible in Washington, with his most recent lengthy statement about the U.S. position on North Korea appearing in a South Korean newspaper as opposed to an American newspaper. This is reminiscent of candidate-Biden’s op-ed in South Korean newspaper Yonhap a few days before the U.S. presidential election, which was likely read only by South Koreans, not Americans.

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