Biden Administration's North Korea Policy

Mira Rapp-Hooper’s Featured Conversation with Victor Cha

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on March 3, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Mira Rapp-Hooper: Victor. It is my pleasure. Thank you so much to you and Dr. Hamre for the kind invitation. Thank you to Chairman Hong for his leadership role for this important forum. And it is really an honor to be a part of such a great conversation that will be taking place.

Victor Cha: Thank you. Thanks so much. Now I know your time is short. I know that you have to get on an airplane, so why don't we just jump right into it. It would be great if we could start by you, if you could just please review for us the Biden Administration's strategy policy on North Korea. In your opinion you know what has been working, what has not been working. Everybody is very focused on North Korea, here in this country in South Korea. So we would love your thoughts on that. That will be great.

Dr. Rapp-Hooper: Of course. Thanks, Victor. I want to start by saying that in the Biden Administration we are laser focused on the DPRK as well as we have been throughout the entire administration. As part of our policy approach to the DPRK we have, of course, taken unprecedented actions during the past 3 years to reinforce our alliance structure in the Indo-pacific, to ensure regional peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and beyond. 

And again, that's with a clear eye on the DPRK and the vital importance of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. We've also consistently sought renewed dialogue as part of that policy with the DPRK with no preconditions attached.

I want to reemphasize that last part with no free conditions attached. We view diplomacy and engagement as fundamental to any DPRK strategy and we stand willing and ready to engage in dialogue with the DPRK at any time. So to your question, Victor, what has worked under this strategy?

The answer is a lot of things. In particular, I would note that what has really worked is the new efforts that we have made with respect to extended deterrence. Part of our DPRK policy is centered on deterring the DPRK from taking military action against the United States or any one of its allies. As you recall, when President Yoon visited the United States in April of last year for a State Visit, we announced the Washington Declaration to address the threat of the DPRK ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

And now the United States and ROK are working more closely together to address DPRK threats under this Washington Declaration. At that historic State Visit, we also announced the establishment of the U.S.-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group or the NCG, which has now held multiple high-level meetings and which directly works amongst our alliance to strengthen our extended deterrence cooperation and provides a vital channel to discuss nuclear and strategic planning as well as to manage threats to the non-proliferation regime posed by the DPRK. 

Additionally, during President Yoon’s State Visit, as part of this broader suite of extended deterrence tools, we made clear that the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence to the ROK is backed by the full range of the US capabilities including nuclear.

We stated that any nuclear attack by the DPRK against the ROK will be met with a swift, overwhelming, and decisive response. So these steps bilaterally to strengthen extended deterrence really have been quite significant indeed. But we have not just limited these efforts to the bilateral level. 

In addition to building stronger, institutionalized ties in the U.S.-ROK alliance, Victor as you mentioned, the president has been determined to support stronger trilateral ties with Japan, culminating of course in the Camp David summit that took place last August. 

We are establishing a trilateral partnership under that framework that is really built to last. Under the Camp David framework our three nations have committed to consulting on regional challenges, provocations and threats affecting our collective interests and collective security, including those posed by the DPRK. And that is specifically enshrined in a commitment to consult that our three leaders agreed to at Camp David. 

We also specifically committed to increase our trilateral defense cooperation, including by holding the first trilateral aerial exercise last fall, and operationalizing a commitment to share real-time missile warning data so that we can counter threats more effectively together.

And this new capability augments our ability to respond to the DPRK’s advancing nuclear and missile threats. DPRK cooperation between the U.S., ROK and Japan is now the strongest it's ever been. This is evidenced by numerous high level trilateral engagements, certainly, at the leader level, but also at the level of our national security principals.

Most recently our national security advisors held a meeting in Seoul, where they also agreed to step up our cooperation to counter emerging threats like the partnership between the DPRK and Russia, led by our national security advisors. Finally, our three countries are serving on the UN Security Council in 2024 and a big part of our trilateral work will continue to be highlighting the need for the international community to address the DPRK’s repeated violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.

But that brings me to the question of what maybe has not worked as well in our policy, and I am glad that you asked Victor. Of course, the policy that I laid out initially had multiple parts to it, but when it comes to reciprocity by the DPRK, that's where we in the Biden Administration have not seen uptick. Regrettably, the DPRK has continued to develop its WMD ballistic missile programs in total disregard for its international commitments.

In particular, the DPRK has not answered our multiple calls through many channels to engage in dialogue. This is increasingly problematic, of course because we now see the DPRK taking increasingly escalatory behavior. It has recently abrogated an Inter-Korean agreement and has increased its activity along the border region.

We worry that without effective communication by both sides the risk of escalation is higher than it needs to be. And we believe that engaging in effective dialogue can play an important role of reducing such risks. But unfortunately, the DPRK has not been ready to pick up.

Dr. Cha: Thanks, that’s a very sobering note on that question. As you said, the Washington Declaration, the NCG, and Camp David helped to prevent North Korean miscalculation, but if I could shift slightly the topic to something I think that's very much on your radar screen. And this is this burgeoning relationship now between DPRK and Russia. 

It looks as though the two leaders are going to complete reciprocal summit visits at some point this year. Reportedly, Russia has benefited from millions of rounds of ammunition from the North Korean regime. So are you worried about sensitive military technology that might be provided in return for this act, these munitions supplies by North Korea. Of course, there’s food and fuel. But what else could be taking place? And how is the administration looking at this particular challenge?

Dr. Rapp-Hooper: Yeah, thanks, Victor, we are very concerned about this burgeoning partnership, which is moving quite rapidly. As you rightly noted that DPRK has been furnishing Russia with significant stocks of munitions to conduct its brutal and illegal war in Ukraine. In return for that support, we assess that Pyongyang is seeking direct military assistance from Russia to include fighter aircraft, surface to air missiles, armored vehicles and ballistic missile production equipment or materials as well as other advanced technology. 

We also believe that Russia's use of North Korean ballistic missiles provides valuable technical and military insights to the DPRK once those missiles are used. And that's not to mention as you did, of course, Victor, the fact that the DPRK is generating revenue by selling its ballistic missiles and other munitions. And these are likely worth millions upon millions of dollars. 

Now, there are other ways besides cash that Russia can repay the DPRK, including by engaging in closer economic cooperation with Pyongyang, and by accepting North Korean laborers into Russia. So, there's a high likelihood that this cooperation overall is providing more solvency to the regime. 

And let's not forget that as Russia continues to use DPRK weapons, the DPRK may become an increasingly attractive source for munitions, arms, and missiles to other military regimes throughout the world. So the transfer of sensitive military technology is certainly concerned. And there are also other ways that Russia can provide support to the DPRK that continue to allow Pyongyang to develop its WMD and ballistic missile programs. 

Dr. Cha: Thanks very much. So again, I know your time is short. You literally have to run to catch a flight. So let me just ask you again. Here we are in 2024. What are the chances if any for diplomacy? 

And as you probably hear in the think tank expert community, some people say, well, you know, they are a nuclear weapon state, we can sort of give up on denuclearization, try to draw them into a threat reduction, arms control negotiation. Any thoughts on those sorts of issues would be terrific. 

Dr. Rapp-Hooper: Yeah, absolutely, Victor. Before, I engage with this really important question though, I do want to sort of look at the silver lining in the DPRK-Russia picture as well, which is to say that while the diagnosis of this cooperation is sober, the United States, the ROK, and in our partnership with Japan trilaterally, we are not resting while this partnership continues to develop. 

As I have already noted, our national security advisors met in Seoul in December and agreed to an unprecedented level of trilateral cooperation to address these really profound concerns that exist in all three of our capitals.

We are now sharing more intelligence, we are aligning our policies better and we are coordinating policy action to try to combat the most problematic dimensions of this cooperation. And that effort is really moving fast and furious. Under the same framework, we are also engaging closely on DPRK related issues at the highest levels with countries around the globe, trying to mount multilateral effort to push back against DPRK-Russia cooperation and that includes in our diplomacy with the PRC. 

We will continue to discuss these growing challenges and their troubling implications around a wide variety of international institutions and in multilateral groupings and with friends, especially in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Also note that under our national security advisor’s direction, we have had a strong and sustained effort to declassify information related to DPRK-Russia ties so that I can share with you today the types of information that I have just shared. 

We want to shed light on this cooperation so that we all are better positioned to take action and to coordinate the steps that we might take, and that includes on issues like ballistic missile transfers, and munitions transfers. And as new evidence comes to light, we will continue to share it to do our utmost to supply a wide variety of like-minded nations with the information base they may need to take action. 

Finally, this is a relationship where sanctions may be important. We have recently announced over 500, new sanctions designations related to Russia's war against Ukraine. And we have a long history of designating DPRK targets, particularly those that have helped the Kim regime continue the development of its WMD program. So this is an area where we and like-minded nations will continue to look to take action. This is all to say, Victor that although we are troubled by this relationship, there is no reason to rest. And indeed, we think there are a number of areas in which we can continue to push out alongside our friends and push back together.

So that brings me to your great question about whether there is any chance for diplomacy in 2024 and how we should think about that. Throughout the Biden administration, we have consistently reached out diplomatically to the DPRK to offer talks with no preconditions, and we will continue to do. Moving forward, we will look for the opportunities to establish new dialogue with the DPRK, and we think this is a really important step for reducing the risk of escalation on the Korean peninsula. We have no doubt that if the DPRK did decide to engage, initial steps might be difficult, but we believe that for the safety and security of our people, all the people on the Korean peninsula, and around the Indo-Pacific, this is worth it.

Now on the question of how we think about our objectives, the United States remains committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But we are also going to consider interim steps on that pathway to denuclearization, provided that these steps will make the region and the world safer. We are ready and willing to engage in discussions with the DPRK about threat reduction, especially currently in light of the situation on the Korean peninsula. 

We believe that this progress would certainly take time, but this is all the more reason for us to return to a path that would lead to the reduction and eventual elimination of the threat caused by the DPRK's destabilizing actions. So the United States will continue to work closely with our ROK allies and with the wide variety of other partners to pursue greater and more regularized communications with the DPRK, particularly on military deconfliction and de-escalation activities, and other stabilizing exchanges that could reduce the risk of misperception and inadvertent escalation on the peninsula.

Dr. Cha: So that in particular that last piece was quite important, quite significant. It sounds like the administration has taken a very pragmatic approach, principled of course in the sense that our goal remains the same, but very pragmatic in terms of trying to engage in any sort of dialogue. I also want to just say as an expert in the outside, your downgrading of information so it becomes available to us when it comes to things like DPRK-Russia ammunitions transfer is extremely helpful. So really, we applaud you for that. 

Dr. Rapp-Hooper:

 May I just add that you and your team are also doing an extraordinary work to shed light on this problem. So really commend to folks watching at home, Victor and his team's effort to shine light on DPRK cooperation as well.

Dr. Cha: Well, thanks that's very kind. That's very kind of you. So again, I know you have to go. So I want to thank on behalf of CSIS and JoongAng Ilbo. I want to thank you for taking the time. I hope that at some point in the future, we can do this together, either at CSIS or here in Seoul at some point. I know you are on the go a lot these days. But again, Mira, thank you so much for taking your time for explaining the policy and giving us a bit of a look at the road ahead. We really do appreciate it. 

Dr. Rapp-Hooper:

 Thanks, Victor. I really appreciate you're having me. And I do want to include once more on an optimistic note there are no small number of challenges emanating from the DPRK and DPRK-Russia cooperation in particular. But we really do mean it when we say that the U.S.-ROK alliance have never been stronger and the wide range of challenges that we are able to work on together. 

If you couple that fact that our ROK-Japan trilateral relationship has also never been stronger. We are week over week innovating the toolkit that we use to push back and stand up to these challenges. So while we have no shortage of work cut out for us over the course of this year and beyond, we couldn't be doing it with better friends, and we are grateful for being included in this important conversation.

Dr. Cha: Thank you so much.


Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a political scientist and expert on the Indo-Pacific who currently serves as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asia and Oceania at the National Security Council, White House. She is the White House’s top advisor for and responsible for coordinating all of US government policy towards the region. From 2021-2023 she served as Director for Indo-Pacific Strategy at the National Security Council, where she was responsible for the White House’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, the management of the Quad partnership among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and US-Japan-ROK trilateral relations, among other initiatives.