After ‘fire and fury’: How should Biden handle North Korea?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Last week, President Biden, during his first official press conference since taking office, told reporters that he believes North Korea is the “top foreign policy issue” facing the U.S. His statement came hours after North Korea launched a pair of short-range ballistic missiles into the sea, a move many experts saw as a test of the new president.

The launches were the latest provocation from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who has pushed to increase his country’s nuclear capabilities despite intense pressure from the U.S. to denuclearize. Biden said the U.S. would “respond accordingly” if North Korea chose to escalate, but added he is open to “some form of diplomacy” between the two nations.

During the past two decades, American presidents have pursued a variety of strategies to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions with little success. Threats of military action — such as then-President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” warning in 2017 — have prompted equally apocalyptic rhetoric in response. Stiff economic sanctions haven’t been enough to force Pyongyang to change course. Periodic attempts at diplomacy have either fizzled or ended in agreements that have swiftly been broken.

Today, North Korea is estimated to have between 30 and 40 nuclear warheads. The country has also made major strides in developing its missile technology. In the past two years, it has tested more than a dozen rockets capable of reaching targets in South Korea and Japan. Kim has claimed to possess missiles that could strike the U.S. mainland, but experts say past tests have yet to prove North Korean rockets could travel such a long range.

Why there’s debate

Most experts on North Korea agree that there are no simple solutions. Letting Kim maintain and expand his nuclear arsenal means allowing an existential threat to grow. But pushing back too hard risks sparking a war that could lead to millions of deaths.

Some analysts say the only way to make progress is for the U.S. to back off its insistence that North Korea immediately agree to denuclearize. They argue that a nuclear-free North Korea, though a worthwhile goal, is unrealistic, and sticking to that demand prevents substantive talks that could lead to a gradual rollback of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. This strategy, some say, would allow the U.S. to lift economic sanctions that have done little to influence Kim’s thinking, but have caused immense suffering to the North Korean people.

Others say Biden should take a firm approach by stepping up sanctions, resuming military exercises along the Korean Peninsula and enlisting regional allies like Japan and South Korea in a unified strategy. A number of experts say China is the only nation with the power to persuade Kim to change course, but that can happen only if the current icy relationship between Washington and Beijing is repaired.

What’s next

The Biden administration is currently undergoing a thorough policy review of its North Korea strategy that is expected to be completed in the coming weeks. Most experts say it’s unlikely the recent rocket launches will be enough to prompt a strong response from the U.S. until that review is finished. That may change, however, if Kim takes the more aggressive step of testing an intercontinental missile or running another nuclear test.

Perspectives

Military action should be completely off the table

“Launching a preventive strike on North Korea — as Trump reportedly contemplated doing in 2017 — is a terrible idea. Such a strike would be unlikely to eliminate Pyongyang’s entire arsenal but would be virtually certain to spark a regional war — and potentially a nuclear one.” — Eric Brewer and Sue Mi Terry, Foreign Affairs

The U.S. should focus on defending its homeland

“Missile defense is a necessary component of U.S. deterrence and with no good options for dealing with the North Korean threat, a robust homeland missile defense is imperative.” — Rebeccah Heinrichs, National Review

Kim is trying to get attention; Biden shouldn’t indulge him

“North Korean nuclear issues were never going to be high up the Biden administration's policy agenda. North Korea is doing what it can to fix that. It wants to be noticed.” — Nuclear policy expert Tom Plant to NBC News

China should be enlisted to pressure North Korea

“It’s reasonable to try and enlist China’s support, given its political and economic relationship with North Korea and its overall heft in the region.” — North Korea expert Frank Aum to New York Times

Patience is needed to prevent North Korea from having the upper hand

“The United States should complete its policy review, consult with allies and partners and then agree on a way forward. Pyongyang’s attempts to escalate should be called out for what they are: transparent efforts to dictate the tempo and nature of a confrontation. Our response should be reasoned and measured.” — Editorial, Japan Times

The reality is that there are no good options for dealing with North Korea

“Unless it can shake Kim Jong Un’s conviction that his strategy is a brilliant success, the Biden administration, like its predecessors, has no winning cards in its hand.” — Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal

Economic sanctions cause severe suffering for the North Korean people

“Sanctions have become a tool of a political theater more than an element of a comprehensive strategy. A stable Korean Peninsula is in the United States’ interest. Making near-permanent a tool that imposes collective punishment erodes U.S. standing in the world and runs counter to American values.” — Jessica J. Lee, the Diplomat

The U.S. should be realistic about North Korean denuclearization

“We need to lower our sights and start smaller. The United States should not recognize North Korea officially as a nuclear weapons state, and it should retain the long-term goal of complete disarmament. But for now, we should put to the side the existing North Korean nuclear arsenal of a few dozen bombs. In the short term, it would be enough to prevent the further growth and modernization of the North Korean arsenal.” — Michael O’Hanlon, USA Today

Biden should act swiftly to assert U.S. control

“The record shows that North Korea is more likely to buck than buckle, and a long silence from Washington could be broken by the loud boom from a new nuclear test. That would set off a familiar escalatory cycle that could make real progress unattainable.” — Josh Rogin, Washington Post

Economic cooperation could benefit both countries and reduce tensions

“Economic engagement that connects nonproliferation diplomacy to U.S. jobs offers the most promising path both for rolling back nuclear programs and for incentivizing future administrations to continue building on U.S. diplomatic achievements rather than squandering them and starting from scratch.” — Christopher Lawrence, Foreign Policy

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