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.
Every foreign policy analyst knew it was coming: yet another North Korean provocation early in a new U.S. president’s term.
With the North’s test-firing late last month of short-range cruise and ballistic missiles, followed last week by indications of renewed nuclear reprocessing at Yongbyon, the question now is what President Joe Biden does about it.
Press reports indicate that his team has reached out to Pyongyang, to initiate a dialogue, but with predictable rebuffs.
So, now what? In his first press conference, President Biden appeared to confirm the Obama view that Pyongyang represented our “greatest national security threat.” If Biden believes that, he needs to act – and soon.
Former President Trump deserves some credit for trying to chart a different course – personalized and high-viz. But after three intensely covered and globally publicized meetings with Kim, Trump lost interest.
What was especially disappointing was that, after a promising start at the Singapore summit, Trump and his team never tested Kim’s flexibility. Former Bush43 Korea security advisor Victor Cha recently recounted the frustration of many international negotiators facing demands from a counterpart that require answers not included in negotiating instructions. The usual reply when this happens? “Sorry, we have to get back to Washington on that.” But as Cha noted, during the Hanoi summit with Trump and Kim, Washington was THERE! And Trump walked away.
What’s North Korea’s nuclear status now? Most experts would agree that over the last four years, Pyongyang has moved inexorably forward with its nuclear capabilities: warhead numbers have increased (according to Cha) from perhaps 20 to around 40; new systems have been displayed and tested (especially solid fuel short and medium-range ballistic missiles); and submarine technology continued to advance.
Trump was able to secure at least implicit agreement from Kim not to conduct nuclear tests or tests of ICBMs; and since 2017, this understanding so far has held.
But what’s next?
Michael O’Hanlon of Washington’s Brookings Institution joined other analysts a few weeks ago in arguing that the Biden team needs to sideline for now the “CVID” phrase (”Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement”) popularized by Mike Pompeo; this won’t be selling in Pyongyang, at least over the short-term.
Instead, as another analyst argued, we need “to lower our sights!”
An incremental approach appears to be of growing interest – like, formalizing Kim’s moratorium on testing, or dismantling a key production facility; in exchange, the international community would agree to lift many of the UN sanctions imposed after the major North Korean nuclear tests in 2016 and 2017. (Reflecting our domestic political reality, however, most U.S. sanctions would remain.)
Evidently, something along these lines was potentially on offer during the Hanoi summit, but as mentioned above, Trump walked away without testing Kim’s flexibility.
And no approach to Kim – whether incremental or grandiose – is likely to succeed without Beijing’s buy-in. The acrimonious Alaska meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart apparently included North Korea in U.S. talking points as an area where U.S.-China cooperation might be pursued; but nothing emerged suggesting an agreed diplomatic path with China – regarding Pyongyang, or anything else.
In the end, a nuclear reality looms: despite U.S. reluctance to admit it, Kim’s North Korea is now a de facto nuclear state. The west can try to limit the danger, as O’Hanlon recommends, and to deter a Pyongyang misadventure by maintaining a robust on-scene military presence.
But Washington can’t let provocations undermine the centrality of U.S. alliance relationships in theater – with South Korea and Japan especially. It would help if Seoul and Tokyo could move beyond generations-long mutual hostility – yawning, emotional grievances Trump spent little time trying to help bridge.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s convening of his Japanese and South Korean counterparts last week in Annapolis was a good way to start. But it will take months if not years of Washington’s patient alliance nurturing to create even a modicum of northeast Asian solidarity to confront Kim and successfully negotiate with him.
And the chance of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula? The greatest risk of a military clash anywhere in the globe right now is probably Eastern Europe, not on the Peninsula. Worrisome Putin troop movements against Ukraine (and in the Arctic) are changing the threat calculus almost daily.
But as one study analyzed, every president since 1956 has experienced predictable North Korean provocation cycles. Make no mistake, these will beset Biden for sure.
While North Korea may not presently represent the greatest international risk for the U.S., no world leader is harder to decipher than Kim Jong Un; Washington underestimates him at enormous peril.
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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.