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How can Joe Biden de-escalate tensions across the Sea of Japan?

"So far, Biden has understandably been unwilling to adopt Trump’s approach of photo-op summits with President Kim, given that no meaningful progress was made towards achieving denuclearisation." Source: Wikimedia Commons, White House archive

Kareem Salem

Joe Biden has long been engaged in the United States' response to the many challenges posed by North Korea to the international community. As Vice President to President Obama, Joe Biden was closely involved in the Obama administration's policy responses to North Korea, working in tandem with the former President's foreign policy team to update American sanctions against the rogue state, once it became clear that Pyongyang would not halt its nuclear tests for diplomatic talks. President Biden also has extensive experience in dealing with the nuclear-security challenges posed by North Korea, having served as chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Entering the Oval Office as President, Biden offers years of experience crafting foreign policy addressing North Korea – unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who largely forged his career in the private sector.

After four years of relative inattention to US allies regarding the North Korean nuclear program, the Biden administration has redoubled its efforts to work with South Korea and Japan, two of America's closest allies in the region. Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held extensive consultations with the foreign ministers of both countries on the margins of the Group of Seven foreign ministers' meeting in London with the aim of emphasising shared concerns about North Korea's nuclear program. But the complexities of the Japan-South Korea relationship, rooted in historical wounds, identity and territorial disputes, have marred Japan-South Korea cooperation and hampered attempts to leverage US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation on North Korea. Efforts to hold a trilateral leaders' meeting failed at the G7 Summit in June, where even a brief side meeting between the South Korean and Japanese leaders could not be organised. Against this backdrop, Pyongyang has ramped up its arms race by successfully launching two long-range cruise missiles off its east coast in September 2021. As the new administration continues to develop its foreign policy towards North Korea, I argue that the United States should leverage defence cooperation with Tokyo and Seoul and pursue humanitarian assistance with North Korea to de-escalate tensions and ensure stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Recommendation 1: Leveraging defence cooperation with Tokyo and Seoul

The grievances afflicting relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, two of Northeast Asia’s leading democracies, date back to the Japanese colonisation of the Korean peninsula. Questions concerning adequate reparations for victims of sexual exploitation, as well as other Korean workers conscripted during the Second World War, will be the subject of many consultations between the governments of Japan and South Korea and may take generations to resolve. The United States cannot, and should not, attempt to resolve these lingering tensions. Instead, the Biden administration will need to leverage its considerable diplomatic influence over its two strategic allies to limit the damage resulting from tensions between Japan and South Korea and advance its foreign policy interests towards North Korea. It will need to stress to policymakers in Tokyo and Seoul the continuing need for a common defence system as North Korea becomes increasingly formidable.

After the successful launch of two long-range cruise missiles in September 2021, Pyongyang boosted its technologically advanced weaponry a week later with the test of a hypersonic glide missile off the Sea of Japan. Hypersonic glide missiles can theoretically fly at twenty times the speed of sound and are highly manoeuvrable in flight, making them almost impossible to shoot down. This, therefore, changes the military equation in the region, as both South Korea and Japan's current missile defence systems are instead designed to defend against ballistic missiles, which descend on their targets from much higher altitudes than hypersonic missiles.

Amid this volatile security backdrop, to mitigate any renewed escalation in disputes between Tokyo and Seoul, the Biden administration should emphasise improving interoperability with its strategic partners. In maximising strategic cooperation with Tokyo and Seoul, Washington will need to isolate historical differences by improving interoperability at the human level, where interactions between senior defence personnel during meetings and engagements result in greater military cooperation and foster trust. Institutionalising communication channels, particularly between senior military officials, will be essential to reinforce mutual security concerns and increase joint military cooperation. When enhanced coordination is undertaken with aims to build mutual respect and understanding, as well as leave past grievances behind, the Biden administration will reduce ongoing dysfunction in the Tokyo-Seoul bilateral relationship, thereby increasing opportunities for deepening trilateral security cooperation.

Recommendation 2: Humanitarian assistance

Dealing with the challenge of a nuclear-armed North Korea, the Biden administration has repeatedly made clear that complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula remains its federal policy. So far, Biden has understandably been unwilling to adopt Trump’s approach of photo-op summits with President Kim, given that no meaningful progress was made towards achieving denuclearisation. This does not mean that Biden should allow a crisis to brew and risk a new war situation. Thermal satellite imagery captured in March 2021 revealed that the North Korean regime has resumed reprocessing plutonium and enriched uranium for an arsenal of bombs now estimated to number between 20 and 40. The strategic direction of the North Korean military establishment is clear: it is pushing for nuclearisation that could threaten both Japan and the United States. This is no surprise, as Pyongyang made explicit threats towards Japan and the United States at the height of tensions in 2017.

For these reasons, the Biden administration must act now to prevent North Korea's nuclear program from progressing. In Biden's inaugural address, the president expressed that diplomacy would be at the forefront of US foreign policy. In this vein, resuming diplomatic ties with North Korea through humanitarian assistance would be timely, as it would help North Korea ease the pain of its chronic socio-economic problems – the country is experiencing one of the worst economic crises in its 73-year history, precipitated by floods and a 21-month shutdown of the North Korea-China border due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trade with Pyongyang’s principal trading partner, Beijing, fell last year by 80 per cent, leading to shortages of food and medicine and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities of the poorest in the population.

Against this economic backdrop, the adoption of new sanctions would be counterproductive, as this would only worsen the situation of a population already affected by the ongoing shutdown of the North Korea-China border. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that North Korea's food stocks will be insufficient by 850,000 tonnes this year. In this regard, offering humanitarian assistance may reduce the likelihood of major weapons provocations, but more importantly, it will allow Biden to score points against China by reducing the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in Pyongyang. This, successively, could create momentum for further diplomacy, and turn the tides of Sino-American competition in East Asia.


Kareem Salem is currently pursuing a Master's degree in International Strategy Analysis at the French think tank Iris Sup, in Paris, France. He holds a Master's degree in International Relations and a Bachelor's degree in Commerce from the University of New South Wales. His main interests and areas of focus are: analysing geopolitical risks in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East and analysing non-traditional/human security threats. Kareem also writes for the independent youth think tank Quo Vademus, registered in Vienna, on geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.



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