The Biden Administration and a New Approach to Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

The LMU Center for Asian Business D.K. Kim Foundation Lecture Series, in collaboration with the Center for International Business Education, hosted a special webinar titled “The Biden Administration and a New Approach to Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” on Thursday, April 22 featuring Victor Cha, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and Korea Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Cha is a Professor of Government and holds the D.S. Song-KF Chair in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and served in the White House from 2004 to 2007 as Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC). He was also the Deputy Head of Delegation for the United States at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing and received two outstanding service commendations during his tenure at the NSC. The event was moderated by Tom Plate, LMU Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and Vice President of the Pacific Century Institute.

In this webinar, Cha discussed the impact of the new administration on the U.S. and the Korean peninsula.

“With the new administration, there is some small hope to resume dialogue with North Korea but with a new and more creative approach,” said Cha. “South Korean President Moon urges the U.S. to engage with North Korea as soon as possible.”

Cha lauded the team that the Biden Administration put in place to deal with the issues as both experienced and creative. The team is led by Kurt Campbell, author of Pivot to Asia who currently serves at the White House as the Senior Coordinator for East Asian Policy.

“What distinguishes [Campbell] is that he looks for change and innovation and that’s very important at this particular time given the difficulties and challenges in the region,” said Cha.

Cha emphasized three main points in his presentation. First, he shared his belief that the main objective of U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula must remain the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea as defined and agreed to in writing by North Korea.

Second, Cha noted that the North Korean program has grown immensely since 2005, that North Korea has conducted over 130 ballistic missile tests, has an estimated 20-30 nuclear weapons and has amassed a lot of fissile material in the interim period.

“We need to be pragmatic about the fact that [denuclearization] is not happening anytime soon,” he said. “We have to focus on managing growth of the program and reduce the threat.”

Third, Cha emphasized the importance of addressing human rights violations in North Korea.

“North Korea is one of the worst human rights violators in the history of modern international relations,” said Cha.

U.S. law currently prevents companies from doing business in North Korea due to human rights violations and Cha maintained that while the conventional wisdom is that denuclearization and human rights are two separate issues, the U.S. addressing human rights with North Korea would be a symbol of how serious the U.S. is about negotiations.

“[Talking about] human rights is integral to a political improvement of relations between the U.S. and North Korea,” said Cha. “And [addressing human rights] is integral to economic assistance from the U.S. to North Korea and those things are important for denuclearization.”

Before closing, Cha discussed the importance of our allies in negotiating with North Korea, whether the U.S. should negotiate bilaterally or multilaterally, and the role of China as a responsible stakeholder. He noted that China is ambivalent about complete denuclearization because they do not perceive the same threat.

“The most important equity that we have in Asia is our alliances,” said Cha. It connects to the North Korea problem, it connects to the China challenge, to climate change, and to global health. We must coordinate our strategies.”

As an example, Cha pointed to 2018 when the U.S. unilaterally stopped military exercises with South Korea as a favor to the North Korean leader.

“That is an example of negotiating over the heads of our allies without achieving much in terms of denuclearization,” he said.

“North Korea is known as the land of lousy options. When we are making policy on North Korea we are not choosing between good and great options, we are choosing between bad and worse options,” concluded Cha.

He said that it has only become more difficult over the past four years with clear challenges for the new administration.

“It will not be easy, but it is extremely important,” he said. “This program can be a source of tremendous instability in one of the most progressive and growing regions of the world which will have global implications.”

The webinar was well-attended, and included international participants from five countries.

View the webinar here.