President Joe Biden’s top national security aides were angry about a federal prosecutor’s diss of North Korea as “a criminal syndicate with a flag” — language that risked antagonizing Pyongyang, NBC News reported.
An assistant attorney general made the remark after the Justice Department indicted three North Koreans for cyber theft, the news outlet reported.
But citing an unnamed source, NBC said some security aides didn’t like that the rhetoric defied senior officials’ agreement that remarks would be toned down when publicly speaking about North Korea.
Aides at the National Security Council "were not pleased with the choice of language" and expressed concern to the Justice Department that it was "going to provoke North Korea,” NBC News quoted one senior aide.
According to NBC News, the incident illustrates that the Biden administration is at odds about whether it’s best to confront or ignore the North Korean nuclear threat.
Four unnamed sources, including former and current administration officials, told NBC that Biden's national security team decided early last month to take a softer public tone toward North Korea, reasoning that provoking Pyongyang while the new administration's policy is under review would be counter to U.S. goals.
At a meeting of senior officials hosted by the National Security Council, two of the officials called the approach as “don’t rock the boat,” NBC news reported.
"Until we have a better sense of how we're going to approach this problem, we're trying not to make waves," an official told the news outlet.
The loose-lipped tough-talk was revealed on Feb. 17 when the cyber theft indictment was announced, NBC News reported. In addition to calling North Korea a “criminal syndicate,” John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said its operatives "are the world's leading bank robbers."
The message caught the White House by surprise, though Biden has repeatedly vowed his Justice Department would be independent.
According to NBC News, the Biden administration’s North Korea policy is still under review and won’t be complete until next month or early May. That review, the news outlet reported, has included discussions with Trump administration officials who were involved with North Korea policy.
Sung Kim, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Friday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would update the Chinese officials about the administration's North Korea policy review and convey that it is seeking "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” NBC News reported.
The White House said Monday the administration began reaching out to North Korea in the middle of last month through multiple diplomatic channels but hasn't gotten a response.
But the NBC News source said current officials have made it clear Biden doesn't want to make "a big push" on North Korea policy right now without a concession from Pyongyang first.
The mixed messaging also was evidenced when Blinken in January said the new administration would look at ways to increase pressure on the country to come to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons — but still try to provide humanitarian help to North Korea if needed.
"We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation," he told his Senate confirmation hearing.
"I think we have to review, and we intend to review, the entire approach and policy toward North Korea, because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration,” he added. “And it's a problem that has not gotten better -- in fact, it's gotten worse."
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