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November 14, 2022 | NBC News

Biden warns North Korea on nuclear test. But he needs to act — now.

The U.S. president issues a vague threat in talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Imposing tough sanctions are what's needed.
November 14, 2022 | NBC News

Biden warns North Korea on nuclear test. But he needs to act — now.

The U.S. president issues a vague threat in talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Imposing tough sanctions are what's needed.

In his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping since he became president, President Joe Biden on Monday issued a stark warning: Xi needed to attempt to make it clear to close ally North Korea that launching “long-range nuclear tests” was unacceptable and that if Pyongyang ignored Xi, the U.S. would take certain “defensive” actions to “send a clear message to North Korea.”

But warnings aren’t enough. Pyongyang is launching missiles at an unprecedented pace and reportedly exporting artillery shells to Russia, and it is believed to be preparing for a seventh nuclear test. The U.S. should do more than delegate responsibility for clamping down to Xi, especially after Biden admitted it’s unclear whether Beijing can “control North Korea.”

The U.S. should also do more than wait for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to escalate further. Exactly what the defensive measures Biden hinted at are hazy, though last week Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said, “If North Korea keeps going down this road, it will simply mean further enhanced American military and security presence in the region.”

The Biden administration needs to take concrete measures now — specifically, immediately restoring the once-robust sanctions regime that has atrophied since Donald Trump embraced summit-level diplomacy with Kim in 2018.

Instead, the Biden administration needs to take concrete measures now — specifically, immediately restoring the once-robust sanctions regime that has atrophied since Donald Trump embraced summit-level diplomacy with Kim in 2018 and then lost interest when it became clear Kim had no intention to disarm.

As things stand, some foreign policy voices are arguing that the lesson of the failure of Trump and preceding U.S. presidents to stop North Korea’s nuclear program is to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.

Last month, Bonnie Jenkins, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, suggested that the Biden administration would welcome “arms control” negotiations with North Korea, a phrasing that evokes talks with the Soviet Union that accepted that each side would maintain a nuclear arsenal.

Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesperson, has soundly rejected Jenkins’ comments on multiple occasions. That’s good — but not good enough. In practice, even disarmament talks have resulted in agreements that Pyongyang soon repudiates.

President Bill Clinton spent both of his terms engaged in negotiations, including an agreement in which Pyongyang was supposed to reduce its nuclear program — only for the Kim regime, then headed by Kim Jong Il, to admit in 2002 that it was developing a covert uranium enrichment program that “nullified” the curbs agreed to under Clinton.

Similarly, President George W. Bush spent most of his second term trying to negotiate and implement a disarmament agreement. Bush imposed financial pressure on the Kim family regime through U.S. sanctions and later a U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed just after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in October 2006. But after North Korea re-engaged in negotiations, he reduced sanctions in exchange for promises of denuclearization, which Pyongyang soon violated.

President Barack Obama increased sanctions after North Korea’s second nuclear test during his first term in 2009 but didn’t maintain the momentum. He tried to jump-start negotiations with the Leap Day deal — and these efforts were short-lived, because Pyongyang launched a satellite using ballistic missile technology soon after the conclusion of the agreement.

Finally, in 2016, the Obama administration escalated sanctions against North Korea after a nuclear test and a ballistic missile launch that had real teeth. They included sanctions and an indictment against a Chinese company and four Chinese people who helped North Korea evade U.S. sanctions.

This robust sanctions policy in the last year of Obama’s presidency extended into the beginning of his successor’s term. Trump labeled it a “maximum pressure” policy, which was accurate, and kept it in place the next two years.

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Issues:

North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance