How many times will the United States pay North Korea to shut down the same nuclear reactor? The answer so far is three, although the Biden White House seems increasingly ready to make it four.
North Korea once again restarted its Yongbyon reactor in July after it had been dormant for two and a half years. To earn the expected payoff, Kim Jong Un appears to be following the same playbook his father and grandfather used to fleece the U.S. during their respective tenures as lead despot.
The premise is simple: Initiate a crisis so that Washington persuades itself that the only possible choices in front of it are a deal or a war. In fact, it’s already working. White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated late last month that the new activity at Yongbyon “underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
For good measure, the Kim regime also reportedly reprocessed plutonium from pre-2018 reactor operations to generate fissile material for use in additional nuclear weapons. One estimate indicates that Pyongyang already has between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons. If Joe Biden continues to follow Kim’s script, his North Korea policy is destined to fail just like that of his four immediate predecessors.
The reactor, and the larger Yongbyon complex, have played a pivotal role in U.S.-North Korea negotiations since 1994. The reactor may be the most valuable nuclear facility in the world, since American presidents keep rewarding the Kim family with money and sanctions relief to shut it down.
Bill Clinton nearly went to war with North Korea in 1993-1994 to stop Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il from gaining access to the fissile material produced in the reactor. The crisis was “solved” when former President Jimmy Carter negotiated the parameters of what would become the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze, but did not eliminate, the nuclear threat. In exchange for shutting down Yongbyon, Washington committed to building two, less dangerous nuclear reactors for Pyongyang as part of a multibillion-dollar package.
George W. Bush declared in 2002 that the Kim regime was part of the “Axis of Evil” but then negotiated a deal for the same reactor in September 2005. A little more than a year later, Pyongyang conducted its first-ever nuclear test. Bush still eventually paid North Korea $2.5 million to destroy the reactor’s cooling tower, although that did not alter the reactor’s operations.
Barack Obama reached the so-called Leap Day Deal on Feb. 29, 2012, to freeze and disable the Yongbyon reactor in exchange for humanitarian aid. The deal fell apart after only six weeks when North Korea launched a long-range missile. Obama then shifted his attention to securing a nuclear deal with Iran while rechristening his do-nothing North Korea policy as one of “strategic patience.” This gave Kim Jong Un ample time to build up his nuclear and missile programs, culminating in three intercontinental ballistic missile tests in 2017.
Kim offered to dismantle the Yongbyon reactor complex at his 2019 Hanoi summit with Donald Trump, but only in exchange for near-total sanctions relief. Trump made the right call and walked away from the talks because Yongbyon is only one component of the North Korean nuclear enterprise. Yet instead of ratcheting up the pressure after Hanoi, Trump settled into a policy that resembled Obama’s.
By restarting the Yongbyon reactor, Kim wants Biden to feel pressure to negotiate a quick deal. Already, the Biden team has been urging North Korea in public and private to answer its offers of negotiations.
Biden, like many of his predecessors, ordered a North Korea policy review when he came into office. In April, Psaki said the administration would pursue a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with [North Korea].” The administration billed it as a middle ground between the policies of his two immediate predecessors, but the administration’s thirst for a deal, what Pyongyang calls “action for action,” is more like the North Korea policy of the late Bush and early Obama years, or the Iran policy of the late Obama years.
Kim is watching Biden’s negotiations with Iran and must like what he sees. Biden is willing to grant Iran, which does not yet have a nuclear weapon, near-total sanctions relief in exchange for its return to an expiring nuclear deal that features only limited restraints and can once again be undone by his successor. It would seem there’s not enough champagne in North Korea for Kim to celebrate his good fortune: another American president eager to pay off enemies for unenforceable promises to shutter their nuclear weapons programs.
Biden’s flawed Iran strategy comes with other consequences as well. There is no way that Kim will agree to a nuclear deal that is more stringent than what Biden offers Iran. Far from deescalate, ironically, Biden’s Iran deal, as currently envisioned, would eliminate any incentive for Pyongyang to denuclearize.
Plus, Biden has already given Kim de facto sanctions relief. The last new North Korea sanctions were issued by the Treasury Department in December 2020. There have been none since Biden took office. Yet if sanctions are not continually maintained, they lose their effectiveness. North Korea continues its proliferation activities and the development of its nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang also finds new and creative ways to evade the sanctions.
In 2016, Congress adopted a North Korea sanctions bill with near unanimity, highlighting that North Korea presents a unique threat. Obama felt obliged to sign it, and his administration began to impose the mandatory sanctions the law calls for. Yet Biden is ignoring the requirement. Congress should push the administration to explain why Kim deserves such forbearance while he continues development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles targeted at America’s allies and our homeland.
Kim’s ultimate goal is reunification of the Korean Peninsula under his control. And while he is probably still processing Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal, it is likely to make him ask: Is the United States really committed to defending South Korea? If Biden is willing to leave Americans and Afghan allies behind, how firm will he be when dealing with a country that could threaten U.S. allies and the United States itself with a nuclear strike? Is Biden going to trade San Francisco for Seoul? Kim may begin to test the limits of Biden’s patience, and things may get more dangerous on the peninsula in the near term.
The good news is there is still time for Biden to correct his course on North Korea. It could also present him an opportunity. If he wants to rescue his foreign policy after the Afghanistan fiasco, what better way than to show that he now understands the price of letting the enemy define the terms of engagement?
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, including as director for North Korea on the U.S. National Security Council. Follow Anthony on Twitter @NatSecAnthony. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
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Original Author: Anthony Ruggiero
Original Location: Washington is ready to fall into Kim Jong Un’s trap, again