The North Korean regime and the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden have made their opening gambits in a process that could pave the way for a return to denuclearization talks — but don’t expect much in the way of quick progress.
Last week, the powerful sister of North Korea’s leader poured cold water on the possibility of a quick return to nuclear talks with the United States, delivering a terse statement exactly 100 words long warning Washington that it faced “disappointment” if it believed engagement was a possibility.
This was echoed just a day later by the North’s foreign minister, who said Pyongyang was “not considering even the possibility of any contact with the U.S.” after the recently appointed U.S. envoy to the country, Sung Kim, said he was willing to meet the North Koreans “anywhere, anytime.”
But the North's carefully worded remarks are almost certainly part of a choreographed response to the U.S. offer of unconditional talks as the isolated country looks to increase its leverage — including through weapons tests and bolstered ties with China — while biding its time before making its next move, experts say.
“The North Koreans like to play hard to get,” said Jean Lee, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “They’re making it clear they won’t be easily wooed, and that it will take more commitment — or concessions — from Washington before they return to negotiations.
“It’s a diplomatic dance, and these are the first steps,” Lee added.
Those initial steps come as North Korea grapples with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which some observers have said represents an existential threat to leader Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Indeed, in a rare admission earlier this month, Kim, himself, formally acknowledged the dire food shortages his country is facing. The situation is widely believed to be due to the North's decision to shutter its borders early last year in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19.
"The people's food situation is now getting tense,” he told a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party earlier this month, also blaming a poor harvest hit by typhoons and flooding last year.
But despite the worrying situation, Kim said his country would maintain its “perfect anti-epidemic state under the present condition,” suggesting that borders will remain closed, preventing needed food imports and aid from entering the country in any large quantities.
The isolated country, which is under heavy U.N. and U.S. sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, has said it has recorded zero coronavirus cases, a claim doubted by experts. But it is also reportedly scrambling to secure large amounts of COVID-19 vaccines for its military via officials living abroad.
This has lent credence to the widespread belief among observers that the situation there is far worse than the country has let on, and that, at least for now, attempts to kick-start denuclearization talks are likely to be met with indifference as the regime pours all of its energy into fighting the deadly virus.
In a bid to offset the effects of the pandemic and food crisis, Kim will also be looking to bolster ties with his sole ally and patron, China, in the face of Biden's unwillingness to budge on easing sanctions and as Washington's rivalry with Beijing intensifies.
In recent days, the two allies have even gone out of their way to highlight a united front as they face off against the U.S. This was on display last week, when the top envoys from both countries published rare op-eds in their respective main party newspapers highlighting the two countries’ “enduring and unbreakable” ties and the need to “advance their strategic cooperative ties” in order to “dispel relentless challenges and impeding schemes of hostile forces.”
China accounts for about 90% of trade with North Korea, though imports and aid into the isolated country are believed to have plummeted amid the border closures.
Beijing is due to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Communist Party on Thursday, with massive celebrations and a festive atmosphere expected to envelop the country for at least the month of July. So for the time being, experts believe North Korea is unlikely to rattle its saber with any fresh weapons tests.
“Beijing would not welcome any major military provocation by Pyongyang while China celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a North Korea expert and professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “So North Korea may conduct its next missile test later this summer, when the U.S. and South Korea usually hold combined defense exercises.”
It's unclear if and how those joint exercises will proceed, though the Pentagon has said it is "constantly" examining training events with the South "to make sure that they're appropriate and they're properly scaled to the threats and the challenges."
After a monthslong policy review, the Biden administration announced last month that it would aim for a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” seeking the North’s eventual denuclearizaton. But details remain scant and it’s not known whether the policy will be a significant departure from that of previous administrations.
In his first response to the review, Kim was said to have “made a detailed analysis” of the new U.S. policy at the meeting of ruling party officials earlier this month, where he “clarified appropriate strategic and tactical counteraction” and “stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially to get fully prepared for confrontation," according to state-run media.
The North Korean leader’s comments, which saw conspicuous omission of the term “hostile policy” and employed the word “dialogue” for the first time in recent months, were seen by some as him nudging the door open to diplomacy with the U.S.
The United States’ withdrawal of its so-called hostile policy toward the North has consistently been cited as a precondition by Pyongyang for resuming negotiations with Washington since the breakdown of working-level talks in October 2019.
“However, the lukewarm reaction from the Biden administration to this attempt by Kim to proffer a picture of an olive branch, if not the branch itself, appears to have fallen short of what Pyongyang judged to be the appropriate next move,” the North Korea-watching website 38 North wrote in an analysis last week after U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan called Kim’s remarks an “interesting signal.”
Still, while there has been much focus on Kim’s mention of dialogue, his mention of confrontation — and the Biden team’s muted reaction to his remarks — should be disconcerting in that it could signal storm clouds on the horizon for the Korean Peninsula.
Frank Aum, an expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, said that one major problem with the two countries’ approaches is that they could lead “to both sides trying to maximize leverage before even getting back to the negotiating table."
Under such a scenario, Aum said, neither party budging "often means that a crisis is required to precipitate talks.” This pattern, he added, was seen “in all previous instances” where the two countries had reached a nuclear agreement.
“Instead of wasting time and raising tensions and risks with this sort of maximizing of pressure and provocation cycle, I think it would be a lot more productive to skip the crisis part and get straight back to talks,” Aum, who previously served as the senior adviser for North Korea in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, said during an online discussion Friday.
Some longtime observers believe it may even be months before the Kim regime re-engages as it bides its time and looks to better its negotiating position.
But once the time is right, the North Koreans will assuredly be looking for "a face-saving opportunity" to re-emerge from their self-imposed isolation, said the Wilson Center’s Lee.
“Perhaps the Beijing Olympics will serve as that opportunity, as the Pyeongchang Olympics did in 2018," Lee said.
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