Not Your Father’s Goldilocks: In Search of “Just Right” on the Korean Peninsula
Biden’s “Goldilocks Solution”on the Korean Peninsula will require the right balance of coordinating with allies and managing relations with Pyongyang and Beijing.
First Challenge — Opening the Door
After a speedy (by Washington standards) three-month review, the Biden administration has outlined the overarching principles of its North Korea policy. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the United States would achieve “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” via a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)]” with “stern deterrence.” The Biden team emphasized that it will closely coordinate its approach with key allies — the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan — and made clear its intention to seek Chinese cooperation, despite the many difficulties plaguing U.S.-China relations.
Trying to hit the “just right” sweet spot between a Trump approach that was alternatively too hard (“fire and fury”) and too soft (“we fell in love”), and an Obama approach that was widely derided for its passivity, President Joseph Biden’s team made clear they “…will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will [they] rely on strategic patience.” Instead, Biden will seek to maneuver North Korea back to the negotiating table. Washington will offer limited sanctions relief and other benefits in exchange for reciprocal, meaningful steps toward peace and denuclearization, all while remaining committed to the goal of totally eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capabilities. Less clear is how the Biden team will approach the delicate issue of ending the Korean War — an objective high on ROK President Moon Jae-in’s agenda, and one that could favorably alter the overall negotiating environment within which the parties must seek progress.
In sum, President Biden seems in search of the “Goldilocks Solution.” Those familiar with the modern American version of Robert Southey’s early 19th-century fairy tale will remember Goldilocks, a little girl lost in the woods, who seeks nourishment and rest in the home of three bears — Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear. Goldilocks tries out the chairs, bowls of porridge, and beds in the house, and each time settles upon the option that is “just right.” The fairy tale is so popular in the Western world that the “Goldilocks Principle” has come to define an approach to almost any challenge that eschews extremes and chooses the sensible middle way.
The Biden team and its North Korea point man, Ambassador Sung Kim, seem poised to apply Biden’s famous hard-headed realism and the lessons of Goldilocks to the peace and security challenges of the peninsula. Given Biden’s foreign policy experience and his firm commitment to alliances, one can hope that Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington will be able to forge and sustain a cohesive policy, presenting Pyongyang with a diplomatic package that it will find attractive.
This assumes, of course, that Pyongyang is interested in making progress toward denuclearization. The original “Goldilocks” was no innocent little girl but an old, disgraced, disheveled, foul-mouthed vagrant who enters the bears’ house not seeking refuge, but intent on mischief. When the bears return home and discover the damage she has caused during their absence — breaking a chair, eating their food — they respond not with curiosity, warmth, or hospitality, but with alarm, driving the woman to leap from an upstairs window. Her fate varies depending on the version of the story but ranges from internment in a house of correction to being impaled on a steeple of St. Paul’s Cathedral!
The ultimate success or failure of the Biden administration’s approach to the Korean Peninsula will depend as much upon the character and goals of the DPRK as it does upon presenting the North with a diplomatic package that is “just right.” Even getting started and sorting out the intentions of the DPRK will require the Biden administration first to convince Pyongyang to open the door and enter the little house in the woods. Moreover, Biden will have to keep many bears in line — navigating the different interests and priorities of Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Moscow. Missteps will not only imperil allied cohesion but also could undermine regional stability and fuel mistrust.
Potential Regional Sticking Points
Even if Biden succeeds in cajoling the DPRK back to the bargaining table, his administration will still have to bridge some significant potential policy rifts among major stakeholders. While President Biden hopes the United States, South Korea, and Japan will move in “lockstep” with each other and that China will play a constructive role, these expectations may not hold up.
The United States hopes China will compartmentalize the North Korea issue, keeping it separate from other tensions — e.g., Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights violations in Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and Huawei. But China is more likely to calibrate its approach to the peninsula with the overall tone of U.S.-China relations. If China becomes too dissatisfied with Biden’s China policies, Beijing could enhance its support to North Korea, insulating Pyongyang from the pressure of sanctions and undercutting U.S.-led diplomatic efforts. North Korea seems poised to deepen its ties to China, pledging to build up the relationship into one that is “envied by the world” after appointing Ri Ryong Nam to be its ambassador to the PRC. The developments of China-DPRK relations make Chinese cooperation with the United States an improbable scenario.
If Biden can avoid getting at cross-purposes with Xi Jinping, he will still have to navigate three potential pitfalls: deciding how to integrate human rights into any peace process, striking the right posture for U.S.-ROK defense cooperation, and defining the end goal of complete denuclearization in such a way as to keep all the parties on board.
President Biden has stressed that his foreign policy will place a greater focus on human rights, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quick to illustrate the point with his blunt criticism of China’s genocidal policies toward its Uighur (Uyghur) minority in Xinjiang. Biden’s principled position on human rights will not endear him to North Korea, and it will complicate the task of securing Chinese support. Depending on the priority Biden attaches to human rights, his administration’s attempt to restore a strong moral component to American foreign policy could also cause a rift with South Korea. As Scott Snyder observed, “Following inter-Korean pledges not to slander each other, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong issued belligerent statements last year aimed at North Korean defectors in South Korea who sent leaflets across the border.” South Korea’s National Assembly then passed an anti-leaflet law prohibiting sending propaganda balloons across its border with the DPRK. Seoul’s effort to please Pyongyang drew sharp protests not only from ROK civil society groups striving to keep North Korea’s atrocious human rights record squarely in the spotlight but also from members of Congress, who have urged South Korea’s legislature to reverse course and rescind the law.
As for Biden’s assurance to approach diplomacy with the DPRK from a position of strong deterrence, working out the details of U.S.-ROK joint military posture will prove another difficult circle to square. Even if Washington and Seoul can agree on moves to moderate joint exercises while somehow maintaining a strong deterrent posture, the allies will still have to deal with the fallout of their decision to eliminate limits on the ROK’s missile programs. Lifting restrictions on the range and payload of ROK missiles means Seoul can now develop surface-to-surface missiles capable of ranging Beijing (or Tokyo) in addition to Pyongyang. Biden’s move to let Seoul develop ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles — ostensibly to respond to Pyongyang’s ever-increasing missile capabilities — could end up destabilizing Northeast Asia by exacerbating existing regional tensions and accelerating a nascent arms race.
Finally, when it comes to defining the end goals, it is axiomatic that in order to reach a destination together, the parties need to agree on where they are going. Otherwise, they are likely to get lost in the woods. The Biden administration has embraced the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” implying its intention to build on the June 2018 Singapore Joint Statement. Pyongyang sometimes uses the phrase to suggest that Washington and Seoul should sever their alliance as part of any peace process, so unsurprisingly, Pyongyang and Beijing welcome the expression. The “peninsula” reference is more problematic for Japan, where officials worry the DPRK or China might use the language to extort the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea, the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, or the drawdown of U.S. strategic forces from the Pacific Theater. Tokyo prefers the formulation of “the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea (CVID),” as well as language that encompasses all of the DPRK’s weapon of mass destruction (WMD) programs — including ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and biological weapons.
In its pursuit of a “just right” approach to forging peace and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the Biden team has chosen to avoid extremes, and by doing so, to reduce the risk that they might inadvertently fuel regional instability and mistrust. It’s a good instinct, borne out caution as to the North’s intentions and rooted in a commitment to preserving the United States’ alliances in East Asia, even if doing so complicates and slows down a potential opening to Pyongyang. But good intentions will only carry the administration’s diplomacy so far. Biden will face condemnation at home if he makes too many concessions to secure China’s support for U.S. efforts with North Korea. The moves necessary to reassure a nervous Japan that the United States will maintain a strong deterrence posture vis-a-vis China and North Korea don’t easily align with the steps required to reassure Pyongyang that the U.S. harbors no “hostile intent.” And the Biden administration will find little appetite in Pyongyang, Beijing, or Seoul for human rights “porridge” served at any temperature. Getting policy “just right” will not prevent the U.S.-China rivalry from undermining security in Northeast Asia. Remaining committed to alliances will not magically close the gaps between Seoul and Tokyo regarding how best to manage relations with Beijing or lure Pyongyang away from its dependence on China and toward closer integration with the broader international community. In short, getting policy “just right” won’t ensure “just right” outcomes, so the Biden administration might want to keep its chefs, woodworkers, and mattress makers on call.