With the COVID-19 pandemic raging as he prepares to move into the White House, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has said his attention will be laser-focused on halting its spread. But North Korea’s Kim Jong Un may have other ideas.
As Kim seeks an end to crushing sanctions over his country’s nuclear weapons program, an attention-grabbing provocation by the North Korean leader is likely in store for Biden, longtime observers and officials say. The only question is when.
“While North Korea and its nuclear and missile threats may not be at the top of his to-do list, the Biden administration cannot afford to ignore Pyongyang — and North Korea has ways of ensuring it is not ignored,” said Evans Revere, a former U.S. State Department official with extensive experience in negotiations with the North.
While North Korea has been uncharacteristically quiet in the run-up to and after the contentious American presidential election, experts say this is almost assuredly not because Pyongyang views Biden as an unknown quantity, or out of deference to President Donald Trump — widely believed to be Pyongyang’s preference — and his disregarding of the poll results.
“This is not out of respect for President Trump but because Pyongyang has serious economic and social challenges to address” ahead of a key ruling party congress scheduled for January, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Indeed, North Korea is facing dire economic straits and its own battle with COVID-19 — both of which pose existential threats to the Kim regime’s survival.
Kim made his first public appearance after a 25-day absence earlier this month, urging officials at a politburo meeting to remain on “high alert at all times” amid the global resurgence of the COVID-19 virus.
Although the secretive state says it has yet to see a single case, it has kept its borders sealed since early this year and doubled down on “anti-epidemic” campaigns.
On the economic front, Kim directed his countrymen in early October to begin an 80-day “battle” to bolster the nation’s sanctions-hit economy, amid the pandemic and after a series of devastating natural disasters.
The battles, as Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus calls them, are widely seen as attempts to consolidate unity around the Kim dynasty and usually come ahead of key political events. The latest comes ahead of the rare party congress in January, when Kim is expected to lay out a new five-year economic plan.
The country’s focus on that campaign and the party congress could mean Pyongyang may wait until after next year’s goals are cemented at the meeting, according to Duyeon Kim, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
“If so, the window for a provocation would be between January and March, when President Biden’s team is not yet complete after inauguration and before the U.S. and South Korea hold their annual spring military drills,” she wrote in a recent analysis. This time frame, she noted, was the same period during which Pyongyang in the past tested missiles or nuclear devices after a change in American administrations.
But the North, she said, also has another option — crossing Trump’s “red line” by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear bomb during the transition period before Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
“Launching an ICBM (or any class of missiles for that matter) would simultaneously achieve the geopolitical objective of gaining leverage in future negotiations and testing an incoming Biden administration,” she added.
The North Korean leader had hoped to reach a deal with Trump on the easing of sanctions that have left his country’s economy a shambles, but returned home empty-handed after his last summit meeting in Vietnam with the U.S. president. Trump had balked at Kim’s proposed deal that would have extended sanctions relief in exchange for closing part of its Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Such a deal would have left the North’s nuclear arsenal intact, including between 20 and 60 assembled nuclear weapons and their fuel, as well as its powerful new generation of missiles capable of striking all of Japan — and most, if not the entirety, of the continental United States.
In the end, the collapse of that summit heralded the effective end of denuclearization talks between the two countries, which have not been held since October last year.
Now, with Trump’s exit and Biden’s entrance, Pyongyang is recalibrating to deal with a new American president with years of experience and knowledge about the North Korean nuclear issue.
Biden has said that “principled diplomacy” will be his approach to the North and that he will meet with Kim only “on the condition that he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity.”
While details of this approach remain unclear, the Biden camp appears to be leaving room to maneuver.
“The president-elect is clearly open to engaging North Korea, and that is a good message to be sending Pyongyang right now,” said Revere, the former State Department official.
He said Biden’s principled diplomacy is a way of contrasting the new administration’s approach with that taken by Trump, who focused on seemingly made-for-TV and substance-free summits, unilateral concessions to Pyongyang and a willingness to look the other way as the North expanded its nuclear program and tested shorter-range missiles capable of hitting U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
“A Biden administration will rely on conventional diplomacy at various levels, a commitment to the goal of denuclearization, solidarity with allies, and continued pressure as it deals with Pyongyang,” Revere said.
The lack of details, however, in the Biden strategy have triggered fears of a return to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” under which Washington ratcheted up sanctions and denied engagement with a goal of forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. Under strategic patience, Pyongyang instead ramped up its nuclear and missile development, culminating in the launches and test of its most powerful missiles and bomb in 2017.
But current and former officials from the U.S. and allied nations have dismissed the possibility of “strategic patience 2.0.”
“According to remarks from those close to Biden that have been made publicly, I don’t think the (administration) will return to the strategic patience approach,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said earlier this month. “I believe (we) must continue to build on the progress and outcome we have seen over the past three years.”
Revere said the U.S. president-elect and many of the key people who will make up his team witnessed firsthand the failure of strategic patience during the Obama administration, “and they are highly unlikely to resuscitate an approach that only made the problem worse.”
Senior Japanese officials, meanwhile, have adopted a kind of wait-and-see attitude, noting that while Biden is likely to take a harder-line than Trump, it could take some time for him to formulate a more coherent strategy toward the North — especially considering the rough road he is facing as Trump continues his attempts to block a smooth transition of power.
In the meantime, however, Washington and its Asian allies will need to prepare for the worst.
“Pyongyang has a track record of using nuclear and/or missile tests early in a new U.S. administration to strengthen its negotiating hand, put a new president on the back foot, and bluntly remind Washington that it must be taken seriously,” said Revere.
“Creating a crisis is a time-honored technique for Pyongyang, and we can’t dismiss the possibility that the North Koreans will do so again.”
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