WASHINGTON — When the Justice Department indicted three North Koreans on cybertheft charges in February and an assistant attorney general labeled North Korea "a criminal syndicate with a flag," some of President Joe Biden's top national security aides bristled, two senior administration officials said.
The rhetoric, the aides complained to the Justice Department, wasn't the toned-down type that senior officials had agreed just days earlier to use when speaking publicly about North Korea, and it risked antagonizing Pyongyang.
A senior official said 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."
The episode underscores concern within the White House about stirring up a looming crisis that the new president has so far not had to contend with publicly, and it exposes tensions within the government over whether it's best to confront or ignore the North Korean nuclear threat.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment, as did the Justice Department.
Biden's national security team decided early last month to take a softer public tone toward North Korea after it concluded that provoking Pyongyang while the new administration's policy is under review would be counter to U.S. goals, said one former and three current senior administration officials.
Two of the officials summed up the approach, which was agreed to during a so-called principals committee meeting of senior officials hosted by the National Security Council, as "don't rock the boat" — particularly when North Korea has yet to provoke the new administration.
"Until we have a better sense of how we're going to approach this problem, we're trying not to make waves," an official said.
Several weeks after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, North Korea tested an intermediate-range missile. And just a month into President Barack Obama's first term, North Korea's state news agency telegraphed preparations for a launch that the new administration unsuccessfully warned Pyongyang against. North Korea hasn't made such a move during the Biden administration, and officials said Biden's national security aides would like to keep it that way.
In announcing the indictment of the North Koreans on Feb. 17, John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, didn't hold back. In addition to calling North Korea a "criminal syndicate," he said its operatives "are the world's leading bank robbers." The message wasn't coordinated with the White House, officials said.
Biden has repeatedly vowed that during his administration the Justice Department will handle investigations independently.
The administration's North Korea policy review isn't expected to be complete until April or early May, officials said. A senior administration official said the review has included discussions with Trump administration officials who were involved with North Korea policy. The issue is likely to be part of high-level discussions between Chinese officials and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Alaska this week.
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Sung Kim, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Friday that 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."
The White House said Monday that the administration began reaching out to North Korea in the middle of last month through multiple diplomatic channels but hasn't received a response. Reuters first reported the outreach over the weekend. A senior administration official said the intention of the outreach was to "reduce the risks of escalation."
A former senior administration official said current officials have made it clear privately that Biden doesn't want to make "a big push" on North Korea policy right now, in the absence of a large, unsolicited concession from Pyongyang, and that the goal of the outreach is "to try to hold off a provocation that would force their hand" before the policy review is complete and to demonstrate to China that the U.S. is making an attempt.