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‘End of whatever regime’: A nuclear-armed presidential threat isn’t what it used to be

Biden moves U.S. policy on North Korea back to Trump’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ approach

President Joe Biden (left) and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on the South Lawn of the White House on April 26.
President Joe Biden (left) and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on the South Lawn of the White House on April 26. (Getty Images)

A nuclear-armed world leader threatening to overthrow a sovereign government just isn’t what it used to be.

It turns out, the one with the most technologically advanced military and modernized nuclear arsenal doing so also isn’t what it used to be. Welcome to the post-Donald Trump era — well, maybe — of global affairs.

That’s just what happened in a surreal moment last week at the White House, when President Joe Biden, no stranger to foreign policy or the North Korean nuclear threat, put Trump’s favorite pen pal, Kim Jong Un, on notice.

“Look, a nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies or … partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime, were it to take such an action,” Biden said during an April 26 joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart.

He and Yoon Suk Yeol were in the Rose Garden that day, in large part to announce a new nuclear attack response pact. Under it, among other things, South Korean conventional military forces will be integrated with America’s nuclear arsenal to ensure a swift and decisive response to any nuclear launch by Kim.

“We’re strengthening deterrence in response to the DPRK’s escalatory behavior and to deal in complete consultation,” Biden said of the envisioned joint response approach.

But if his “end of whatever regime” threat was not enough of a message to the mercurial North Korean leader, Biden offered another: Don’t test the launch codes in my suit pocket, Mr. Kim.

Biden pointed out that he possesses “absolute authority as commander in chief and the sole authority to use a nuclear weapon.” But, in what seemed a hedge toward deterring rather than inflaming Kim, Biden added that the U.S.-South Korean “declaration means … we’re going to make every effort to consult with our allies, when it’s appropriate, if any actions are so called for.”

Interesting double-qualifier, Mr. President.

Not only did Biden officially return U.S. policy in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike back to the Trump administration’s initial policy, he added to it by incorporating South Korean military forces — which are positioned mere miles from the North’s nuclear sites and military facilities.

That is significant for key operational reasons. Some analysts have questions about the effectiveness of the North’s air defense systems. That could allow the South’s fighter jets and other aircraft to easily enter North Korean airspace and begin a joint Washington-Seoul response.

Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls the North’s air defenses “limited and largely obsolete.”

Under the new pact, “this may include direct South Korean conventional support, including conventional missiles and air support, to potential U.S. nuclear operations,” according to Panda, a former consultant to the United Nations. “Another possibility is that the alliance will move toward NATO-like programs, whereby South Korean fighters could support U.S. nuclear-capable bombers.”

Just days before Yoon landed in Washington, North Korea fired a ballistic missile at a high angle earlier this month that landed between his country and Japan. It was a continuation of what The Associated Press labeled a “provocative run of weapons tests.”

That was clearly on Yoon’s mind in the Rose Garden when he announced the new U.S.-South Korean approach to a response, which he vowed would be “overwhelming” and “quick.”

It is likely Biden’s “end of whatever regime” doctrine will stick until he leaves office or Kim gives up his nuclear program in a way the U.S. and its allies can verify with zero doubts. That certainly was not the case for Trump, whose view of the reclusive Kim changed as the two began exchanging letters.

In one of the most surreal twists of Trump’s term, the 45th commander in chief began his presidency mocking the North’s leader as “Little Rocket Man.” Trump at times seemed to be taunting Kim, including with this Aug. 9, 2017, tweet: “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. …”

But when Kim’s letters delivered the kind of flattery Trump seemed to relish from other world leaders, he bizarrely declared he and the former adversary whom he once described as a nuclear-armed madman suddenly felt “love” for one another.

Such tactics are unlikely to work on Biden. He is focused on bringing an “end to the escalatory behavior” of the North.

‘Really important’

Conveniently for the 46th president, his warnings to Kim came one day after he used a three-minute video to announce his reelection bid. Every sitting president wants to appear tough globally while trying to convince voters to keep him around.

“Look,” Biden told reporters in the Rose Garden, “there’s more to do to finish the job.”

He signaled last week that includes disarming Kim — and preparing the world to respond swiftly if those efforts, as they have under several U.S. and South Korean leaders, fail.

Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, D-Va., a Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services member, said Wednesday he views Biden’s warnings to Kim as more about “deterrence” than escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Even one senior Senate Republican, the Intelligence Committee’s John Cornyn, applauded Biden’s tough talk.

“I hope that is representative of deterrence. I think that was really important, obviously, when you’re talking about nuclear weapons because nobody wants to go there. And the fact that more and more countries are getting them along with long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles and others to deliver them is a major concern,” said Cornyn, R-Texas. “So I actually appreciated President Biden’s strong and clear statement to Kim Jong Un.”

Like your correspondent, Cornyn admitted he was surprised the “end of whatever regime” declaration was not prominent in news coverage and think tank analyses of the Biden-Yoon meetings and joint news conference.

As always, media coverage focused heavily on Biden’s comments about Trump. Headlines reported Biden saying he is running again, in part, because of the “danger [Trump] poses to our democracy.” Other reports were quickly blasted out about the president saying he would have sought another term even if his predecessor had not run.

Trump produces clicks. Trump jacks up cable news ratings. Readers and viewers are the media’s market. News is now a big business, so the forces created by that market increasingly dictate coverage.

But few seemed to raise an eyebrow over Biden’s Kim-ousting threats. It only shows the extent to which Trump, who broke so many norms as president, appears to have desensitized the country even to nuclear-armed bravado.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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