Thursday, January 14, 2021


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un resurfaced last week at the eighth Congress of his ruling Workers’ Party, where he admitted “almost all sectors” of his country’s economy had fallen short of their goals. Speaking for nine hours, Mr. Kim also said North Korea should bring its “arch-enemy” — the United States — “to its knees.”

Mr. Kim’s weapons of mass destruction program, which has long denied North Korea a path to economic prosperity because of punitive sanctions, reflects the internal contradiction of his policy of “byngjin” — developing the economy while simultaneously expanding its nuclear weapons deterrent. Mr. Kim has embraced his family’s tradition of seeking to hoodwink the world into lifting economic sanctions in return for empty denuclearization promises.

The Trump administration forsook that approach even when Pyongyang’s state-controlled media accused the U.S. of “gangster” diplomacy for holding Mr. Kim to even the most benign promises of the broad disarmament “framework” which Mr. Kim and President Trump signed at their 2018 Singapore summit. 

Of all of the wickedly challenging national security threats awaiting the incoming Biden administration, none might be as complex as North Korea. Mr. Kim has conducted no nuclear tests since September 2017 and no missile tests since November 2017. But in spite of international sanctions, natural disasters and a COVID-induced border lockdown, North Korea has advanced its ballistic missile capability, including a new ICBM unveiled in October, and added an estimated 30 to 40 nuclear weapons to its stockpile. 

President-elect Biden will no doubt be asking his intelligence agencies, the military and the State Department to reexamine U.S. policy on North Korea, which has for years sought face-to-face negotiations with Washington, a peace treaty ending the Korean war, diplomatic recognition by the U.S. and acceptance of the North as a nuclear state.

But Mr. Kim has never provided an inventory of his nuclear arsenal or an itinerary for their destruction. His behavior strains the logic that North Korea has accumulated ICBMs and nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of bartering them away for food, energy and a more productive relationship with the international community.

Mr. Kim knows his brutal regime, which denies its citizens every political, civil and religious liberty, is inherently unstable and in great need of an economic lifeline. One of the world’s most isolated countries, the “Hermit Kingdom” has a young, literate and inexpensive workforce as well as large reserves of coal, iron ore, limestone and minerals. 

A prosperous North Korea integrated with the outside world, however, would increase pressure for greater political freedom, which would threaten the regime’s survival. North Korean leaders have no doubt internalized the lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms, as well as how a nuclear deterrent might have meant a different fate for Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. 

So far, Mr. Kim has successfully played Russia, China, South Korea and the U.S. against one another. Russia and China would like to reduce — if not eliminate altogether — the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula. Both Moscow and Beijing have argued for reducing international  sanctions before North Korea completes denuclearization.

The incoming Biden administration should be prepared for three equally precarious scenarios: that the North accelerates its missile and nuclear programs; that the North seeks to sell its nuclear and missile technology to U.S. adversaries and non-state groups to bolster its economy; or that the regime collapses altogether, spawning a destabilizing nightmare of loose nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. 

Mr. Kim’s bellicose threats last week might were likely designed to assuage his population. But if past is prologue, the North Korean leader is also seeking to encourage a new round of negotiations with a new team in Washington. 

Having eschewed Mr. Trump’s top-down, personal diplomacy, Mr. Biden should consider appointing a special envoy to re-start negotiations with North Korea, which has been largely frozen since Mr. Trump rightly walked away from what would have been a bad deal at the 2019 Hanoi summit. 

As a trust-building measure, the U.S. and North Korea could begin by opening liaison offices in their respective capitals. 

The sanctions which the Trump administration imposed are valuable leverage. While complete and verifiable denuclearization remains the ultimate goal, diplomatic engagement should focus on matching concrete North Korean nuclear arms cuts and transparency with economic incentives and the possible easing of sanctions.

The special envoy should also seek common ground for engaging Mr. Kim even with China and Russia, neither of whom wants a nuclear North Korea or a chaotic failed state on their border. 

Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu spoke of seeking to “subdue the enemy without fighting.” A commitment to diplomacy from the new administration is all that is needed to get started. 

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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