Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
North Korea’s Kim family has, for over three decades, greeted new U.S. Presidents with a barrage of missile tests, nuclear explosions, and bombastic threats.
With President Biden's arrival in January, most analysts expected Kim Jong Un ("Little Rocket Man”) to live up to his Trump-inspired sobriquet with a military reminder to the new American President that North Korea should not be forgotten. But Kim's rockets remained silent - until three weeks ago.
Now, of course, Kim is rolling out, seemingly every other day, a new arsenal of cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles that reflect years of investment and development despite crushing health and economic burdens on his impoverished country.
With unclassified sources estimating that North Korea already has roughly 60 nuclear weapons and is producing six more each year, Kim Jong Un is no trifling threat.
In this light, what do Kim's latest moves mean? A prelude to a cross-border attack? Leverage for future negotiations? An effort to undermine our key allies in the region, South Korea and Japan? And what’s the likely response from President Biden?
First off, and most importantly, the chance of Kim launching a cross-border invasion, or even of sinking a South Korean ship, as Kim's father ordered in 2010, is highly unlikely.
Kim’s attention now, besides demonstrating to the world his new arsenal of missiles as a deterrent message, is focused inward as he addresses the ravages of the pandemic that have coursed through his military; and Beijing, now closer to Pyongyang politically than three years ago, will constrain any deliberate attack.
The last thing Beijing wants is instability on their Yalu River border, especially with growing concerns about Muslim unrest in their western frontier and with their border with Afghanistan now controlled by the Taliban.
Concern about unity with our allies is more justified. One goal of every potential U.S. adversary is to undermine the strategic relationships that bind the U.S. with its partners around the globe and that give Washington decisive advantages in times of conflict.
Kim Jong Un knows this full well. South Korea and Japan are clearly critical U.S. treaty allies that are in the boresight of the North Korean leader.
Each has unique strategic priorities that the U.S. must recognize; they also, sadly, have a long history of bitter relationships that make any effort to develop a coherent U.S./Japan/South Korea strategy for northeast Asia immeasurably difficult.
For Japan, with new Prime Minister Fumio Kushida sworn in last week, and with national elections now called for late this month, the key for the U.S. will be stability and continuity in this vital relationship.
Kushida will undoubtedly be as supportive of Washington's Asia strategy as were former PM's Suga and Shinzo Abe. We owe Tokyo no less.
It bears reminding that Japan is a member of the revised “Quad” strategic partnership alongside Australia, India and the U.S.; and Japan is also a long-standing supportive member of the “Six-Party Talks” with North Korea - if these talks are ever revived! It’s hard to overstate Japan's importance in any effort to deter and contain North Korea.
The South Korean partnership is more complicated, largely because of residual effects of the truly bizarre behavior of former President Trump toward Moon Jae In, South Korea's leader.
Moon never enjoyed the warm relationship with Trump that catapulted Shinzo Abe to the top of Trump’s BFF list. Worse, literally in the midst of delicate bilateral face-to-face talks with the North Korean leader, Trump was blasting the South Korean president with threats of a full pull-out of U.S. troops and escalating burden-sharing arguments to absurd, embarrassing levels.
Kim Jong Un of course relished in the resulting alliance division. Mercifully, one of the first heads of state hosted by President Biden was Moon Jae In.
It's the right approach by the president; and we need to welcome robustly Moon’s recent success in reopening the “hotline" with the North. If constraining Pyongyang’s nuclear program is the strategic goal, these are the right moves for a critical, long-standing friend.
And President Biden’s next steps? All he has said to date about North Korea is that he is committed to “diplomacy, and stern deterrence.”
These limited words are hardly surprising, in a town focused elsewhere.
Sue Mi Terry of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies has recently summarized the mood well: “The prevailing sense today, amid a pandemic and heightened great power tension, seems to be that Washington has bigger fish to fry and more urgent crises to focus on.” Kim's recent spate of testing is changing that.
Biden's playbook for North Korea is limited. From Carter through Trump, nearly all options have been tried. Key of course will be China. No major move towards trying to contain North Korea's nuclear program - and certainly toward denuclearization - can happen without Beijing's concurrence and strong support.
This highlights one of the major uncertainties of the evolving Biden foreign policy strategy: what really ARE our priorities with China? Human rights? Climate change?
Security and stability in the western Pacific? Trade? Taiwan? Cyber? Fighting terrorism? At this point, after eight months, most of Biden's China policy remains “under review.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that, absent overt aggression on North Korea's part, Biden is unlikely to roll out a new policy toward Pyongyang until he decides on his China priorities; and except for trade, where Biden’s Trade Representative Katherine Tai lifted the policy lid slightly last week (sanctions stay, limited business exceptions allowed), that rollout is still months away.
The president would help his diplomacy in the region - and globally - were he to launch some semblance of economic statecraft.
To this point, U.S. trade negotiations and leveraging the strength of U.S. business and U.S. markets as part of a whole-of-government approach to international affairs have been “missing in action.”
If the U.S. were to join the 11-nation Transpacific Partnership, for example, of which Japan is already a member, and were to bring South Korea on board as well, it would represent one of the most important strategic moves by the U.S. in the western Pacific in years. (“More important than eight nuclear submarines for Australia by 2040,” said Fareed Zakaria last week.)
But sadly, the president has, to this point, demonstrated little interest.
One of Washington’s best and most seasoned experts on North Korea, Victor Cha, recently highlighted one glimmer of hope once Biden’s Korea policy is affirmed: a “vaccine diplomacy” outreach to help the regime ameliorate its crushing health crisis and open a path for renewed diplomacy. (Of course, Kim insists there is not a single case of COVID in country!)
But the more realistic appraisal comes again from Sue Mi Terry.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, she wrote that the best we can hope for over the short term is to contain Kim’s threat through alliance unity and military modernization — and, over the longer term, to “weaken Kim’s hold on power from the bottom up” with an aggressive, all-source information campaign.
She suggests as well that as long as the Kims remain in power, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is a pipe-dream.
In the end, don’t expect a repeat of the Trump-inspired, photo-focused, face-to-face meetings between Kim and a U.S. President.
Absent a major surprise from Pyongyang, the next few months are likely to be spent in policy deliberations and quiet diplomacy; expect a Korea policy roll out by year-end, hopefully tightly coordinated with friends in the region.
Unfortunately, the Kim family is known for pulling major surprises; and the president of late, in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal and then the Australian nuclear submarine deal that so angered the French, seems to have forgotten his own foreign policy doctrine that priorities alliance unity.
These realities, and especially the growth each year of another half-dozen nuclear weapons in the hands of a leader about which we know so little, all make North Korea the perpetual bad dream that's only getting worse.
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ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.