Amid missile test surge, much of Biden's North Korea policy still unknown

Experts warn administration not doing enough as Kim Jong Un continues to advance weapons programs.

Updated: January 22, 2022 - 10:25pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Links

As North Korea starts 2022 with a barrage of weapons tests, the Biden administration's policy toward the country remains largely undefined to the public, raising questions about how Washington will respond to what could be a year of North Korean provocations and brinkmanship with the U.S.

North Korea on Monday launched short-range ballistic missiles near the capital, Pyongyang, in the country's fourth missile test in less than two weeks — the most such launches the North has ever conducted to start a year.

It took Pyongyang 10 months to conduct the same number of missile tests last year.

North Korea said the purpose of its latest launch was "evaluation," describing it as a success.

The test was aimed at "making a selective examination of the tactical guided missiles which are being produced and equipped and verifying the accuracy of the weapon system," according to North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. "The Academy of Defense Science has confirmed the accuracy, safety, and operational effectiveness of this weapon system being produced."

North Korea's recent missile launches were part of the development of new weapons systems, according to Bruce Klinger, a senior research fellow for northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

"Any improvement in Pyongyang's ability to attack our allies and U.S. forces stationed there is worrisome," Klinger told Just the News.

As North Korea continues to advance its nuclear, ballistic missile, and other weapons programs, however, the Biden administration's policy toward the rogue regime remains unclear.

"The Biden administration vowed it wouldn't engage in photo op summit meetings but would instead insist on progress toward a denuclearization agreement at the working diplomat level, nor would it engage in a bromance with a purveyor of crimes against humanity," Klinger said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. "It would also repair the damage to America's alliances."

"Yet," Klinger continued, "much of the Biden administration's North Korea policy remains unknown, in large part because of Pyongyang's refusal to accept any diplomatic contact."

The administration conducted a review of North Korea policy last year, but the results of that review were not made public, causing those interested to rely on certain public phrases and statements to decipher Washington's intentions.

Last year, President Biden described his North Korea policy as a combination of "diplomacy, as well as stern deterrence," while White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said it was a "calibrated, practical approach" lying between President Obama's policy of "strategic patience" and President Trump’s desired "grand bargain" with Kim.

The White House did not respond to a Just the News request for comment to describe the administration's policy toward North Korea, whether it resembles Obama's strategic patience, and what concrete, interim goals the administration seeks on the way to its stated ultimate objective of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.  

The State Department responded to a similar inquiry, explaining that the administration is ready to meet with North Korean officials.

"Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," a State Department spokesperson told Just the News. "The United States harbors no hostile intent toward the DPRK [North Korea.] Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK to make tangible progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and our deployed forces."

The administration is "prepared to meet with the DPRK without preconditions," the spokesperson said. "We hope the DPRK will respond positively to our outreach."

The State Department wasn't clear on how the U.S. would compel Pyongyang to engage in diplomatic talks over its nuclear program but said North Korea poses a major threat to the U.S. and the world at large.

"The DPRK constitutes a threat to international peace and security and the global nonproliferation regime," the spokesperson continued. "The United States has a vital interest in deterring the DPRK, defending against its provocations or uses of force, limiting the reach of its most dangerous weapons programs, and above all keeping the American people, our deployed forces, and our allies safe."

One problem with the administration's policy toward North Korea is how U.S. officials explain it, some experts say.

The administration "has not sufficiently articulated the policy so that the press and public can adequately understand it, and it leads to assessments that criticize it for being 'engagement only,'" according to David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "The administration never 'named' the policy just as the Obama administration did not, and that leads the press and pundits to reprise the idea of 'strategic patience.'"

Maxwell added that, too often, "the blame seems to always be on whatever U.S. administration is in office and insufficient blame is placed on the nature, objectives, and strategy of the Kim family regime," which he described as "the most evil mafia-like crime family cult."

Three days before its most recent weapons launch, North Korea test-fired two other small-range ballistic missiles from a train. Before that, the North conducted flight tests of what it called hypersonic missiles on two separate occasions this month.

Kim oversaw the more recent of the hypersonic launches last Tuesday, making his first reported appearance at a weapons test in almost two years. He said the missile would "help bolster the war deterrent of the country."

The next day, the Biden administration announced that it was imposing sanctions on eight people and entities for their work in developing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile-related programs for Pyongyang.

The administration "correctly criticized the recent launches as violations of U.N. resolutions, imposed sanctions against additional entities, and sought action by the U.N.," said Klinger, who spent 20 years serving in the U.S. intelligence community, including as the CIA's deputy division chief for Korea.

However, Klinger added, the Biden administration "continues to pull its punches on fully enforcing U.S. laws against North Korean and Chinese entities violating them."

He noted that while President Biden and his team vowed to maintain or increase pressure on Pyongyang they have only sanctioned a handful of entities for violating U.N. resolutions.

According to Maxwell, both Trump and Biden "should have done more and hopefully will do more in the future and expend more effort on sanctions enforcement." He said both men deserve credit for not giving into pressure to lift sanctions in order to bring Kim to the negotiating table.

Just the News Spotlight