Last week’s weapons tests broke what had been an unusually quiet period on the North Korea front, reminding the Biden administration that the country’s zeal for nuclear weapons will eventually demand the White House’s attention.

Usually by this time in a new U.S. administration, the president would have already seen North Korea carry out a handful of ballistic missile or nuclear tests. That’s because the Kim regime in Pyongyang loves to test newly elected American leaders. Indeed, North Korean provocations cluster close to U.S. presidential and congressional midterm elections, a trend that has been especially true during the last few election cycles. Remember when President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat huddled over reports of North Korean missile tests during dinner at Mar-a-Lago only three weeks after Trump’s inauguration? And when President Barack Obama was greeted with a rocket launch in April 2009, followed by a nuclear test during his first Memorial Day weekend as president? Until last week, President Joe Biden has had to deal with none of that, even though the United States has taken part in events that usually upset North Korea, such as holding a summit and carrying out joint military exercises with South Korea in recent months.

But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not acted according to script for reasons that may have to do with COVID-19, whose impact on the country remains largely unknown to the outside world. Still, the Biden administration should not take comfort in the relative lack of provocations thus far. Although North Korea’s saber rattling remains subdued, a crisis is brewing as Pyongyang continues to quietly develop weapons systems that could threaten the United States. The weapons tested last week do not appear to have the capability to reach the United States, but they should still be taken seriously. North Korean state news described a low-altitude cruise missile it launched as a “strategic weapon,” suggesting Kim’s ambition to field a nuclear cruise missile, which only a handful of countries now possess. It also fired a short-range ballistic missile from a railcar platform on September 15. This suggests a road-mobile launch capability, which along with solid-fuel propellant (which the North Koreans have already produced) would make it more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike a missile before its launch. These are all capabilities that make North Korea’s nuclear deterrent more survivable and impervious to a U.S. first strike.

But these tests aren’t the only troubling signs. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is going “full steam ahead,” Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed this week. Early evidence of this included thermal satellite imagery captured in March and analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Those images indicated heat signatures at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, suggesting the regime had resumed the reprocessing of plutonium and enriched uranium for an arsenal of bombs now estimated to number between 20 and 40. Experts are now waiting for two more shoes to drop: the demonstration of a missile armed with multiple warheads and an operational ballistic missile launched from a submarine. The direction is clear: North Korea wants to have a modern force that can engage in nuclear warfighting, that can threaten the United States with missiles that can carry multiple warheads and are impervious to ballistic missile defenses, and that can survive and retaliate credibly against a U.S. preemptive attack. If it achieves those goals, then North Korea’s nuclearization will never be reversed, even by force.

This is why the Biden administration will eventually have to decide how to stop North Korea before it crosses this threshold. There are two paths out of this predicament. It can wait for a crisis and risk another near-war situation like the one Trump faced in 2017. Or it can act now, getting diplomacy back on track through humanitarian assistance that includes American COVID-19 vaccines and food aid, both of which the country needs.

The Back Burner Suits Everyone . . .  for Now

How the Biden administration will approach this predicament is unclear. Its policy has been deliberately low key, displaying neither urgency nor enthusiasm for picking up the pieces from previous agreements and finding a diplomatic path forward. In large part this is because Biden’s national security team, all of whom cut their teeth on the issue during Obama’s presidency, is deeply skeptical of North Korea’s intentions to denuclearize and have plenty else to deal with at the moment.

There has yet to be a speech by any administration official offering a full elucidation of the policy beyond White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s promise that Biden would not pursue Trump’s made-for-TV summitry or Obama’s strategic patience. Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, has declared a willingness to meet with the North Koreans “anywhere, anytime,” but most observers in Washington sense caution rather than enthusiasm from the administration when it comes to relations with Pyongyang. Moreover, now that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have ended, the State Department’s leadership has been focused entirely on the diplomatic mission in that country, meaning there is little time for high-level attention on North Korea. Unless they’re discussing Afghanistan, visiting foreign officials cannot get much time with top officials at the State Department or the National Security Council.

If North Korea achieves its nuclear goals, its nuclearization will never be reversed, even by force.

Kim has his own preoccupations. A desperate economic situation—precipitated by floods and a pandemic-induced, 21-month shutdown of the border between North Korea and China—has caused Pyongyang to focus inward. The regime also has no interest in answering calls for engagement from what it perceives to be a lame-duck government in South Korea. Moreover, China has done nothing to promote diplomacy. If anything, China’s tying of cooperation on North Korea to U.S. concessions in bilateral relations with Beijing means China won’t do anything on its own to break the stalemate. In the near term, these have all afforded Biden the room to put North Korea on the back burner.

But this period of relative quiet is likely to further dissipate before the end of this year, if not sooner, as Kim will likely return to his old ways. Coercion, after all, is North Korea’s natural way of interacting with the outside world. In the past, the United States has relied on diplomacy to ratchet down tensions. This time, however, may not be same. That’s because as North Korea inches toward the completion of its nuclear capabilities, the provocations could become more significant and dangerous. For example, North Korea might acquire and test a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, which could evade U.S. defense systems; an intercontinental ballistic missile; or a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Biden team is also loath to de-escalate without meaningful progress. It certainly won’t respond to provocative gestures with a head-of-state summit or personal overtures to Kim. To avoid the path of watered-down diplomacy, the Biden administration may feel the need to respond forcefully: for example, by enforcing nonproliferation with a blockade. But North Korea will not back down. That would mean more testing, more provocative military exercises, and a crisis similar to the one that broke out in Trump’s first year.

COVID-19 Opens a Door

The usual answer to this problem is to apply more sanctions to North Korea in order to compel it to stop its weapons programs, even if temporarily. That option might make for good politics in Washington, but it is ineffective, largely because North Korea has essentially put itself under the most stringent sanctions in its history by keeping its border with China closed since January 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With sanctions rendered meaningless, the only answer to stemming the nuclear threat is diplomacy. And the best way to get there is through humanitarian assistance that would help North Korea stop the spread of COVID-19 and also ease the pain of the chronic food shortages that plague the country. With the appropriate verification protocols, humanitarian aid would not violate any of the current sanctions against North Korea under current UN Security Council resolutions and U.S. law.

It remains unknown how many COVID-19 cases or deaths North Korea has suffered. To date, the country has reported zero, a number about which U.S. and South Korean officials are skeptical. But the mitigation measures the country has taken to keep the virus out have hit its population extremely hard. Trade with China is down by as much as 90 percent, and food prices are rising. But Kim has already rejected an offer of roughly three million Chinese-made vaccines from COVAX, the UN-backed effort to distribute vaccines to countries in need, claiming North Korea does not need them as much as harder-hit nations. North Korea is reportedly not interested in the Chinese vaccines because of questions about their effectiveness. When Kim rejected an offer this summer, also organized by COVAX, of around two million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, it was due to concerns about possible side effects. This could create an opportunity for the United States, whose vaccines—made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—are believed to be the safest and most effective.

Humanitarian assistance would make it less likely that Kim would carry out major weapons provocations.

North Korea’s food insecurity also provides an opening for diplomacy. A combination of the border lockdown to trade and serious seasonal flooding has impacted North Korean food stocks. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates an 850,000-ton shortage this year, and there are media reports that the public food distribution system has broken down. The provision of food and fertilizer could come from South Korea, which wants desperately to improve inter-Korean relations as a legacy of the current government in its last seven months in office.

Vaccines and food might seem like small ball and a detour from denuclearization. But humanitarian assistance would address the urgent needs of the North Korean people, promote solidarity with South Korea, and make it less likely that Kim would carry out major weapons provocations. What is more, an agreement to provide U.S. aid would reduce Chinese influence in Pyongyang. And, finally, it just might create some momentum for further diplomacy.

If the United States is unwilling to pursue such assistance, then it can roll the dice, wait for the next nuclear test by North Korea, and hope that traditional diplomacy can save the day. But with everything else that Biden needs to deal with, he hardly needs another crisis.

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  • VICTOR CHA is Professor of Government and Vice Dean at Georgetown University, Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and non-resident Senior Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.  
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