North Korea fired two suspected ballistic missiles on Jan. 17, marking its fourth missile test this month and its seventh since September 2021. This spate of tests provides the final word on U.S. President Joe Biden’s engagement-only policy toward Pyongyang: It’s not working. While the administration has belatedly begun to tighten sanctions in response to the tests, Biden should get back on track by aggressively enforcing congressionally mandated sanctions against North Korea.
Upon concluding its North Korea policy review in April 2021, the Biden administration announced it would pursue a middle ground between the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” (diplomatese for doing nothing) and the Trump administration’s combination of “maximum pressure” and personal engagement with dictator Kim Jong Un. That month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden seeks a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK” and has reached out to Pyongyang both publicly and privately to offer talks. The United States reduced its economic pressure on North Korea as well. Kim, however, rejected the administration’s overtures and friendly gestures. Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs march ahead, putting Washington and its East Asian allies in a worse position than before Biden took office.
With the administration distracted by other foreign-policy priorities—not least Russia’s preparations for war against Ukraine—North Korea has received little attention. The November 2021 readout of a virtual meeting between Biden and China’s Xi Jinping mentioned North Korea in a single short sentence, where it was lumped together with other “regional challenges” like Afghanistan and Iran.