Biden must use Moon summit to navigate out of North Korea stalemate

President Joe Biden’s summit on Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in is of pivotal importance.

Moon, in his final year in office, is operating under a time constraint that Biden, just a few months into his term, does not have. Still, Moon’s urgency offers a good impetus for Washington to break the stalemate into which it has fallen with Pyongyang.

Whether that’s a realistic prospect remains to be seen. After all, Biden’s North Korea policy remains to be seen. The Biden administration recently completed a review of U.S.-North Korea relations and has selected a “way forward.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters late last month that “our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain,” as the Trump administration sought, “nor will it rely on strategic patience,” like the Obama administration.

Instead, Psaki continued, the White House seeks “a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with [North Korea] and to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and deployed forces.”

That sounds sensible, as does Moon’s description of Biden’s plan as pursuit of “the Korean Peninsula’s complete denuclearization through diplomacy with a flexible, gradual, and practical approach.” If speculation is correct that Biden’s idea is incremental progress, in which a series of steps toward denuclearization by the Kim Jong Un regime are rewarded with concessions (chiefly sanctions relief) from the U.S., Moon may actually get the peace he seeks.

Reports from Korea that an outline of Biden’s agenda was “well received” in Pyongyang are a good sign. An upfront demand of complete denuclearization has always been unacceptable to Kim, who is fearful of forcible, U.S.-orchestrated regime change if he surrenders his nuclear arsenal. A positive reception, then, suggests the new approach may actually move away from that unrealistic ultimatum in the near term.

The trouble is that this concept of a “calibrated” middle way is difficult to square with other rhetoric and behavior from Biden and his team to date. The president has yet to appoint a special envoy to deal with North Korea, nor has he granted any sanctions relief despite Moon’s requests for flexibility to assist his negotiation efforts. Indeed, a senior administration official who spoke anonymously to the Washington Post in late April said the administration “fully intend[s] to maintain sanctions pressure while this plays out.”

But what happens when the near term is up and Kim refuses to take the final steps toward denuclearization because he remains unconvinced of his own security? The clear-eyed assessment of recent history that Psaki says the administration has completed should produce a plan to meet that very real possibility. A plan, that is, that avoids stumbling into war.

That is the whole point here. We can securely coexist with a nuclear North Korea — indeed, we are already doing it. Our conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities make it unlikely that Kim will launch an unprovoked attack on the U.S. or a close ally. But peace ought to be our goal. It is the end to which denuclearization should only be a means. Moon seems to understand this, and at their summit, Biden should follow his lead.

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