WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is charting a new course in an attempt to end North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, striking a balance between President Donald Trump’s grand bargain, leader-to-leader diplomacy and President Barack Obama’s arm’s length approach to the crisis, said U.S. officials familiar with the plan.
The decision to pursue a phased agreement that leads to full denuclearization follows a months-long review that was briefed to President Joe Biden last week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the chairperson of the joint chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley.
The plan represents a rejection of the strategy devised by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who insisted that the United States hold out for a “go big or go home” agreement — a deal that would remove all sanctions in exchange for the full dismantlement of North Korea’s weapons program.
That approach was flatly rejected by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a 2019 summit in Hanoi that collapsed after U.S. officials made clear they would not lift sanctions unless Pyongyang put its entire nuclear program on the table.
“We are not seeking a grand bargain or an all-or-nothing approach,” a senior administration official said in an interview Thursday. “What we’ve settled on is what we think is a calibrated, practical approach to diplomacy with the North with the goal of eliminating the threat to the United States.”
The administration has begun sharing the review’s results with allies and partners, including Japan and South Korea, as well as members of Congress, who were frequently consulted over the last several months, officials said.
The specifics of the proposal Washington will put forward remain unclear, and U.S. officials are not using familiar terms that previous U.S. administrations have used, such as a “step-by-step” agreement.
“We are not putting those kinds of labels on our approach,” a U.S. official said.
The conclusion of the review comes amid increasing U.S. concerns that North Korea may be considering a fresh provocation, such as the testing of another long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, or a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
U.S. officials said they planned to convey the new strategy to North Korean officials but acknowledged that it was not likely to change the regime’s near-term calculus regarding nuclear provocations.
“We do not think what we are contemplating is likely to forestall provocation from the North,” said the senior official, who like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. “We fully intend to maintain sanctions pressure while this plays out.”
One of the many challenges facing U.S. officials is whether they can create momentum behind a phased approach that exchanges partial sanctions relief for partial denuclearization until the program is fully dismantled. One U.S. official said the effort is a “careful, modulated diplomatic approach, prepared to offer relief for particular steps” with an “ultimate goal of denuclearization.”
That would differ from the Obama administration’s approach, which withheld serious diplomatic engagement with North Korea until it changed its behavior and ceased its nuclear provocations.
“If the Trump administration was everything for everything, Obama was nothing for nothing. This is something in the middle,” the official said.
The Biden administration first reached out to North Korea through several channels starting in mid-February before it had completed its policy review. North Korea’s first vice foreign minister dismissed the outreach as a “delaying-time trick.” In March, the regime fired two short-range missiles during Blinken’s first trip to the Asia-Pacific and days later shot two ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan.
The removal of economic sanctions is a key priority for Kim, who conceded last year that his country faced “two crises at the same time”: the spread of the coronavirus and crippling U.S. and United Nations sanctions banning many of its exports, including textiles, coal and iron ore. The virus also forced the regime last year to close the border with China, which accounts for an estimated 90 percent or more of the country’s external trade.
One key question is what role China will play in the diplomacy, given its economic and political leverage over North Korea.
U.S. relations with Beijing remain tense amid a growing list of disagreements related to trade, human rights and security. A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration will seek to “work with China as we move forward, both in terms of supporting our diplomatic efforts as well as on living up to our common obligations to enforce U.N. sanctions.”
The first meeting between the Biden administration and its Chinese counterparts in March resulted in an usual display of bitter comments and China has recoiled at the U.S. accusation that it is carrying out genocide against Uyghur Muslims.
Strong disagreements over human rights could also cause tension in the U.S. approach to North Korea.
The Biden administration is expected to appoint a special envoy for human rights in North Korea, a position that would presumably spotlight the Kim regime’s brutal repression of its citizens through mass surveillance, torture and political-prisoner camps. A senior U.S. official declined to comment on the impact the envoy might have, but noted that there is a “statutory requirement” for that position to exist.
U.S. partners in Asia have expressed appreciation for the administration’s consultations and attentiveness to the region. Austin and Blinken made Japan and South Korea their first overseas trips, and Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for his first state visit. On Thursday, the White House announced that South Korean President Moon Jae-in will visit Washington on May 21.
But they realize the North Korea challenge is pressing, even with increased collaboration among allies.
“There should be a closely coordinated approach,” one East Asian official said. “Early engagement is critical. We have limited time for engaging with North Korea.”
Seoul and Tokyo have made clear they would like the United States to conduct bilateral talks with North Korea, which they view as more effective than the six-party talks pursued by previous presidents.
The Biden administration isn’t dismissing all of the previous administration’s efforts and has reached out to former officials who gleaned rare negotiating experience with the North Koreans, such as Trump’s former deputy secretary of state, Steve Biegun.
Biden officials will not jettison Trump’s 2018 four-point agreement in which Kim committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the two sides pledged to work toward a “peace regime” and the repatriation of prisoners of war and missing soldiers from the Korean War.
“Our approach will build on the Singapore agreement and other previous agreements,” a second senior administration official said.
The administration said a new approach is needed because the “one thing that previous approaches all have in common is they failed to address this problem and threat,” the first senior administration official said.
“We’re under no illusions about how challenging this is going to be. This is in many ways one of if not the most difficult problem that we face from the standpoint of U.S. national security but we’re going to be trying to address it head on.”