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North Korea conducted more missile tests. What happens next?

The Biden administration faces three big challenges on the Korean Peninsula

- March 27, 2021

On Thursday, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, calling these a “new type of tactical guided missile.” This latest provocation, in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that bans Pyongyang from conducting ballistic missile tests, follows combative rhetoric and actions in recent weeks.

North Korean officials issued a statement criticizing U.S.-ROK military exercises this month, warning the Biden administration not to “cause a stink” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Japan for their first official trip to Asia. And North Korea fired two short-range cruise missiles last weekend — a move the United States and South Korea downplayed in an apparent effort not to overhype the tests.

As the Biden administration engaged with allies in recent weeks, Pyongyang also reached out to its diplomatic partners. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged messages reaffirming their traditional friendship and the need to cooperate on countering “hostile forces.” Kim also sent messages to Cuba, Vietnam and Laos calling for stronger ties between socialist countries and to jointly “struggle against imperialism.”

North Korea’s recent actions are probably just a mild preview of the tension-raising tactics the Biden administration will face over the next four years. Pyongyang will also seek to exploit three looming challenges the United States and its allies face in policy coordination.

Biden wants to reassure allies that the U.S. is still interested in their security

The U.S. and South Korea don’t fully agree on North Korea policy

As I note in a recent article, there’s no simple solution to the North Korean nuclear challenge. While U.S. and South Korean leaders have committed to maintain a “fully-coordinated strategy toward North Korea,” Washington and Seoul are not perfectly aligned on how best to deal with Pyongyang.

Anxious to inject momentum into a diplomatic stalemate that has persisted since the failed 2019 Hanoi summit, the Moon Jae-in administration has expressed frustration with the inability to resume inter-Korean projects like the Kaesong industrial complex and Mount Kumgang tourist zone. Officials in Seoul bristled in the past at Washington’s emphasis on the economic pressure campaign and U.S. reluctance to greenlight inter-Korean economic initiatives and humanitarian assistance for North Korea.

Some issues may be clarified shortly by the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review, but different views on the balance and timing of economic carrots and sticks may continue to bedevil U.S.-South Korean alliance coordination. Pyongyang, sensing this friction, will probably continue pushing Seoul to advocate for sanctions relief on its behalf with the United States and others.

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The issue of human rights is also quickly emerging as a source of friction between Washington and Seoul. In accordance with the Biden administration’s commitment to place democratic values front and center in its approach to foreign policy, Blinken called out the Kim regime for its repressive nature during his trip to Seoul. Blinken declared that U.S. North Korea policy would emphasize not just security issues but also human rights concerns.

The Moon administration, however, refrained from explicitly criticizing the Kim regime, following its practice of not commenting directly on Pyongyang’s human rights violations. Moon’s policy is based on the assumption that not offending the Kim regime is the most effective means to speed up the broader peace process, and ultimately spur positive change in North Korea.

This logic also drove Seoul’s recent decision not to co-sponsor a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses for the third consecutive year, citing “comprehensive consideration of various situations.” The United States and Japan were among the 43 co-sponsors.

China and Russia are added complications

As the United States rallies its allies and partners to counter the destabilizing behavior of China and Russia, South Korea has refrained from overtly criticizing either country, viewing Beijing and Moscow as potential partners for advancing its peace agenda on the Korean Peninsula.

Reviving the Iran nuclear deal requires tackling these three issues

Just days after Blinken and Austin’s trip to Seoul, the Moon administration hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for a bilateral visit. In a joint news briefing held hours after North Korea conducted its short-range ballistic missile test, Lavrov called on “all concerned countries to renounce an arms race and activation of all kinds of military activities” — a message that seemed to be aimed more at Washington than Pyongyang. The Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid, characterized the Russian foreign minister’s visit to Seoul as a “countermove” to the U.S. diplomatic offensive against China and Russia.

Washington, Seoul, Beijing and Moscow all have different priorities and objectives — and Beijing and Moscow are more concerned about gaining leverage in strategic competition with the United States than denuclearizing North Korea. As such, Pyongyang is unlikely to face coordinated actions by these four players anytime soon.

The U.S. has few credible options left to coerce North Korea

Multiple U.S. administrations have had to face the reality that there are no good options when it comes to North Korea policy.

Decades of sanctions have failed to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, in large part because of North Korea’s extreme tolerance of economic hardship and isolation, and because China continues to serve as an economic lifeline for North Korea, with lax enforcement of sanctions.

In addition, the overwhelming outcry in the United States and South Korea against dealing North Korea a “bloody nose strike,” amid reports that the Trump administration was considering military action in response to Pyongyang’s provocations in 2017, widely established that a preventive military strike is not a viable option.

As a result, while China may have signed onto increasingly harsh sanctions to avoid “fire and fury” in its backyard four years ago, Beijing isn’t likely to feel the same urgency to pressure North Korea today. Armed with this knowledge, Pyongyang, in turn, may feel it has greater latitude to push the envelope and continue expanding its nuclear and missile programs without triggering a cohesive, punitive response from Washington, Seoul, Beijing and others in the region.

These significant challenges to allied and regional coordination and the implementation of an effective North Korea policy suggest that the Biden administration and its counterparts are in for a difficult ride with Pyongyang — one that, barring a radical diplomatic intervention, will probably lead to a North Korea with greater nuclear and missile capabilities.

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Patricia M. Kim is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a visiting scholar at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University and senior policy analyst on China at the U.S. Institute of Peace.