The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has concluded its North Korea policy review and offered the public a glimpse of its rough dimensions. Like its predecessors, the full content of the administration’s policy review will likely remain classified, so for now analysts are reading between the lines.

The administration’s limited on-the-record descriptions of its policy and secondary reporting in the press suggest cause for measured, cautious optimism about the prospects for managing the challenge of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Structural factors and North Korea’s own policy, however, leave cause for pessimism.

Shades of Denuclearization

Early scrutiny of the review’s outcome has largely focused on the exegesis of a three-paragraph statement released by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on April 30. Psaki clarified that the administration’s desired end state “remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Biden offers continuity with his predecessors going back to former president Bill Clinton, whose administration adopted “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as the basis for U.S. policy on North Korea after the governments of South Korea and North Korea adopted the phrase in a 1992 joint declaration. (The founder of the North Korean regime, Kim Il Sung, had used the phrase earlier still.)

Unlike former U.S. president Donald Trump, whose administration sought the “final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, the new formulation simply prefixes this familiar term with the addition of “complete.” The distinction is subtle, but it appears to create daylight in how North Korea and the United States might each interpret that phrase.

The interpretative space inherent in the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” continues to serve as a useful entry point for negotiations for the two countries—and for South Korea—despite the tremendous qualitative advancements and quantitative growth in North Korea’s nuclear forces in recent years.

Ankit Panda
Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
More >

While Pyongyang and Washington might agree on little else, their shared acceptance of this language dates back to 1993. More recently and most importantly, “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is the phrase that appears in the June 2018 joint statement from the Singapore summit—the sole U.S.–North Korea document that bears Kim Jong Un’s signature.

Even as denuclearization, however the term is defined, appears to be a vanishingly small prospect in the near term, the administration’s decision to frame its policy around this phrase suggests a preference for incremental change in the U.S. approach.

Relatedly, the Biden administration appears to have rejected the more specific phrase “denuclearization of North Korea” and its variants. North Korea views this phrase as tantamount to a call for its unilateral disarmament and has never endorsed any document or agreement containing this language. The Biden administration used this phrase and “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” interchangeably in February and March 2021, but it appears now to have settled on terminology that augurs better for prospective diplomacy.

Beyond Denuclearization

Despite the Biden administration’s adoption of a familiar framing for its desired, aspirational end state on the Korean Peninsula, a dose of reality appears to have imbued the outcome of the policy review.

Psaki emphasized that the new policy “calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with [North Korea].” This “practical approach” is designed to “make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and deployed forces.”

Ever since the 2002 collapse of the Agreed Framework—the Clinton administration’s 1994 deal with Pyongyang that froze plutonium production—and North Korea’s decisive exit from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in early 2003, three successive U.S. administrations have found it difficult to abandon the perfect (total North Korean disarmament) in search of the good (restraints on North Korea’s arsenal that reduce the potential for nuclear conflict). As a result, the boldest component of the new policy appears to be its acknowledgment that desirable improvements to U.S. and allied security are possible short of North Korea’s complete disarmament.

To stymie critics of diplomacy, the Biden administration has been careful not to explicitly frame its policy as including an openness to traditional arms control with North Korea or even more general nuclear risk reduction—a subcomponent of arms control, which might include open-ended, informal confidence-building steps.

To skeptics of engagement with North Korea, arms control has little utility because North Korea is not a worthy counterpart and the threat it presents might be managed through nuclear and conventional deterrence alone. Opponents of nuclear risk reduction similarly fear that heading down this road may end up legitimating North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons or undermining U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan.

Yet the Biden administration deserves credit for not entirely succumbing to these skeptical voices and carefully leaving the door ajar for a phased, open-ended, and piecemeal approach to managing the growing dangers of North Korea’s ever more complex nuclear capabilities

Though the retention of the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” language implies a nonproliferation framing for U.S. policy, the Biden administration implicitly appears to be acknowledging that the burdens of nuclear deterrence with North Korea demand practical risk reduction. Where the administration’s policy constitutes a more radical departure from the past is in its acknowledgment that the United States, South Korea, and even Japan can realize practically beneficial negotiated outcomes with North Korea short of its complete disarmament.

Where to Next?

Unfortunately, however ajar the door may be, Kim has agency of his own. While he may have signed a declaration in 2018 that outlined an aspirational goal to work toward the very same end state the Biden administration has now endorsed, that is neither necessary nor sufficient for progress in the near term.

Kim’s own version of a policy review earlier this year suggested a profoundly different approach. At the Eighth Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, he outlined a dramatically ambitious plan for nuclear and conventional military modernization. North Korea has resumed the testing of ballistic missiles and is likely to continue doing so through the rest of this year—not exclusively or primarily to prod the Biden administration but to advance its capabilities in ways that it feels necessary for its own deterrence needs.

Pyongyang excels at the exegesis of U.S. policy pronouncements but likely will not find the Biden administration’s North Korea statements to date impressive. The North Korean foreign ministry has already lambasted Biden’s description of North Korea as a “serious threat” during his address to Congress last weekend and promised “corresponding measures.”

North Korea will likely say more about what it considers the United States’ “hostile policy” in the meantime. That phrase refers to everything from U.S. extended deterrence in Northeast Asia to support for economic sanctions on North Korea and much more. The Biden administration’s apparent decision to place greater emphasis than the Trump administration did on North Korean human rights in its policy review has and will continue to irk Pyongyang, making an opening on denuclearization diplomacy more challenging.

For Kim, nuclear weapons will remain the cornerstone of his country’s national defense strategy. North Korea’s basic ask of the United States remains much the same as it was in the months between the 2018 Singapore and the 2019 Hanoi summits: large-scale sanctions relief, accompanied by a secondary package of security guarantees.

While Kim has an interest in maintaining stable deterrence with the United States, his level of interest in practical risk reduction may not correspond to that of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo. North Korea can usefully manipulate risk to build pressure of its own on the United States—as it did in 2003 by leaving the NPT, in 2006 by testing a nuclear device, and in 2017 by unveiling its thermonuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missiles. However ajar a U.S. president might choose to leave the door, North Korea has seen benefits in simply blasting the door open by manufacturing a crisis that builds political and diplomatic pressure to act.

These realities are important for U.S. policymakers to remember as they try to convert the outcome of this policy review into real progress. Structurally, conditions today appear to be similar to where they stood toward the end of former president Barack Obama’s first term, when North Korea faced food shortages and U.S. negotiators were able to broker a short-lived, misunderstood “food-for-freeze” agreement. This Leap Day Deal—announced on February 29, 2012—collapsed quickly amid a divergence in U.S. and North Korean interpretations of whether the agreement’s freeze component extended to satellite launches.

The Biden administration would err if it simply left progress on improving U.S. and allied security interests on the Korean Peninsula “up to North Korea.” Despite the administration’s exhortations that it won’t repeat its predecessors’ mistakes, this would be a recipe for failure.

Like much of the world, North Korea is reeling from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, compounded by comprehensive economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. Pyongyang also faces demons of its own making, with Kim’s economic mismanagement having wrought apparent devastation on ordinary North Koreans.

These crises present opportunities for the Biden administration to show North Korea that it can engage in good faith and seize on one other component of the 2018 Singapore declaration, namely, establishing “new [U.S.–North Korea] relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”

The more difficult work—on reducing nuclear risks and improving U.S. and allied security interests—can then follow.