Biden Is Kim’s to Lose
With the departure of President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is losing a friend with whom time together was a “precious memory,” as the North Korean leader wrote in a letter to the U.S. leader. Will Kim be able to form a similar relationship with Trump’s successor?
President-elect Joe Biden has signaled what his approach to North Korea will be: “principled diplomacy.” Diplomacy: This word is key. Few expect a rerun of President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience,” which ultimately failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Biden’s call for diplomacy with Pyongyang suggests a different approach that could yield benefits not only to the United States, but also to the Kim regime. But Kim needs to get the message.
Pyongyang certainly has an incentive to take a wait-and-see approach until U.S.-North Korean diplomacy resumes. As I explain in a recent book on the history of U.S.-North Korean relations, Pyongyang wants a fundamentally different relationship with the United States. It wants normal diplomatic relations, which would bring recognition and, North Korea hopes, economic prosperity. An end to hostility will not suffice from Pyongyang’s perspective. Diplomatic normalization is a goal dating back to at least 1974, when the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly sent a letter to the U.S. Congress to request it. Along with development of a nuclear deterrent, diplomatic normalization with the United States has been the only consistent North Korean foreign policy goal throughout the decades.
Pyongyang’s behavior in the runup to the recent U.S. presidential election suggests that the Kim regime is now willing to wait and see. Its most recent recorded missile test dates back to March. It has refrained from responding to Biden after he called Kim a “thug.” In sharp contrast, North Korean media was quick to lash out at the incoming U.S. president as recently as last year. Whether Kim will miss his summits and letter exchanges with Trump is a moot point. The reality is that North Korea now has to deal with the new sheriff in town.
Why might North Korea feel positive about the prospects of diplomacy under Biden? An op-ed by the president-elect carried by South Korea’s press agency Yonhap News shortly before the election is a good place to start. In his op-ed, Biden wrote that he “[will] engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula.” The fact that Biden mentioned both denuclearization and unification (read: reconciliation) in the same line matters. It suggests openness to consider denuclearization and inter-Korean relations together — even if the former usually takes precedence for any U.S. administration.
Furthermore, Biden’s close foreign policy adviser Brian McKeon is on record indicating that Biden would be willing to meet with Kim. This would only come after the necessary groundwork: in other words, following the normal, bottom-up approach to diplomacy that Trump shunned. Even though conventional wisdom suggests that Kim would prefer to go straight to the top by meeting directly with the president, the truth is that three meetings with Trump have yielded no benefits to Pyongyang. If North Korea is serious about getting an agreement, as Kim himself said right before the failed Hanoi summit, proper negotiations with a U.S. administration following a consistent approach could be a safer bet.
Plus, whisper it, but a growing number of voices in Washington are taking a more realistic approach towards North Korea’s (potential) denuclearization. North Korea relinquishing its nuclear arsenal before getting any concession in return is, quite simply, a nonstarter. Enter arms control. Incoming Vice President Kamala Harris has written that “simply demanding complete denuclearization is a recipe for failure. [The United States] must work closely … to contain and reverse the short-term threats posed by Pyongyang as [it works] toward that long term-goal [of denuclearization].” Meanwhile, Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken has publicly indicated that “it’s, if not impossible, highly unlikely that we will achieve in any near term the complete denuclearization of North Korea. I just don’t see that as realistic in the near term. What I think we can get is an arms control and, over time, disarmament process put in place.”
Similarly, potential Secretary of Defense nominee Michele Flournoy has stated that it is “hard to see [Kim] and this regime completely accepting nuclear disarmament … it’s more of a risk management challenge in my view, realistically, even though [the United States] should keep disarmament out there as the ultimate long-term goal.” And according to Obama’s former North Korea envoy Joseph Yun, the Biden administration would be willing to try a different approach and be much more pro-engagement than Obama’s.
These statements must be music to Kim’s ears. North Korea needs an agreement with the United States to kickstart an economy battered by COVID-19, recurrent natural disasters, and sanctions. Without a deal with the United States, there won’t be sanctions relief. Without sanctions relief, there won’t be the large-scale aid and, potentially, investment that could upgrade the North Korean economy. Can the Kim regime survive without sanctions relief and continue to develop its nuclear and missile programs? Certainly. Sanctions date back to 2006. Can North Korea thrive without them? No.
North Korea can count on an unlikely ally to press the Biden administration to allow sanctions relief: South Korea. As President Moon Jae-in stated when congratulating Biden for his victory, the two Koreas are “stakeholders in the issues of the Korean Peninsula.” Moon has also reiterated that his government’s policy is engagement and that peace in the Korean Peninsula is his ultimate goal. Seoul certainly wants North Korea to move toward denuclearization. But from the Moon government’s perspective this can only happen with a step-by-step process such as that outlined by Washington’s North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun, in which engagement comes together with denuclearization steps.
In this sense, North Korea could see the transition from Trump to Biden in similar terms to the transition between Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Back then, North Korea had an agreement with the United States that it hoped the new administration would continue to implement: the “Agreed Framework.” Thus, it refrained from provocations until it became clear that the agreement would be discontinued. This time around, North Korea doesn’t have an agreement — unless one considers the one-page Singapore joint statement signed by Trump and Kim as such. But Pyongyang has an incoming U.S. administration willing to try out diplomacy and entertaining the idea of focusing on arms control as a first step — and with South Korea’s support for diplomacy to boot.
In contrast, the transition between Obama and Trump came at a point in time when U.S.-North Korean relations were essentially broken. And the transition between Bush and Obama took place as implementation of the Six-Party Talks agreements was shaky at best, due to differences between Washington and Pyongyang regarding sequencing, and also with regard to what had actually been agreed. During these two transitions, Pyongyang opted for high-intensity brinkmanship in the form of nuclear and missile tests. This was counterproductive, regardless of the state of U.S.-North Korean relations. Pyongyang may have learned its lesson.
Certainly, there is much skepticism about whether North Korea will be able to hold off from a provocation to try to catch the attention of the incoming U.S. president for long. After all, from Pyongyang’s perspective its patience following Bush’s election was not rewarded.
But North Korea has much to lose from high-intensity brinkmanship. It could lead to more sanctions. Or if China, and Russia, block U.N. sanctions, nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests could result in a tightening of implementation of existing sanctions plus new bilateral sanctions from the United States, the European Union, or Japan. This type of test would also make it less likely that the United States would opt to follow a diplomatic path — not more likely. The latter might have been the case up to the mid-2000s. Under Obama and Trump, however, nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests did not yield negotiations.
Pyongyang could, of course, resume short- and mid-range missile tests. It could also up the tempo vis-à-vis Seoul, as it did when it blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong earlier this summer. It isn’t certain, however, that these provocations would attract the attention of a Biden administration focusing on domestic affairs as well as on more pressing foreign policy issues, such as dealing with China or rebuilding multilateralism. But these types of actions at least would not necessarily kick diplomacy into the long grass.
In this context, what can the incoming Biden administration do to take advantage of North Korea’s need for a deal with the United States? As a starting point, it would make sense for U.S. officials to communicate early on to Pyongyang that negotiations and an agreement are possible — but that a North Korean provocation will put diplomacy on hold. Blinken has advocated an Iran-type deal with the Kim regime. While the two cases are different, the Biden administration can use the Iran nuclear agreement as an example of its willingness to use diplomacy.
Washington can communicate this message directly to Pyongyang, using the New York channel or any of the other channels still in place. Or it can go through Seoul, since the Moon government has its own lines of communication with the North Korean regime. Or even better, it could engage in a “maximum pressure” communication campaign using a range of channels to hammer home the message that it is willing to negotiate.
In addition, the incoming U.S. government can use aid as a goodwill message. Kurt Campbell, who has been advising the Biden campaign on North Korea and East Asia policy, recently indicated that “sending a message to North Korea to be patient through humanitarian assistance is a good idea.” Certainly, the offer of humanitarian aid would be a very positive diplomatic signal. From Pyongyang’s perspective, nuclear weapons are a necessary deterrent against a hostile United States. Aid would symbolize a move away from this alleged hostility. And, of course, it is the right thing to do from a humanitarian point of view.
The incoming Biden administration should also try to come up with a common position with its ally, South Korea. Certainly, working with China will be necessary to address the North Korean nuclear issue. But South Korea is the U.S. ally, and no one has more at stake in Korean Peninsula issues than the Koreas themselves. Seoul’s position was essentially ignored by the Trump administration, which actually set up a bilateral coordination meeting between the State Department and Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that hindered South Korea’s own engagement agenda.
For the Biden team, it would make sense to sit down early with Seoul to understand how inter-Korean economic engagement and reconciliation fit with Washington’s focus on denuclearization. After all, the current South Korean government is different from the two previous conservative administrations that the Obama administration worked with, when Biden was vice president. The Moon government does not believe that focusing on pressure almost exclusively will bring a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of Moon’s Democratic Party and one of the favorites to be the party’s next presidential candidate, has even suggested that the Biden administration should use the Singapore joint statement as a starting point for its North Korea policy. While this is unlikely to happen, it shows that the Moon government prioritizes engagement. It would make sense for Biden and Moon to agree on the right mixture of carrots and sticks on North Korea.
In any case, one thing is certain: It is up to Kim to have a positive relationship with Biden or not. A bit of patience and avoiding unnecessary provocations could be rewarded with negotiations and, ultimately, a proper deal that proved elusive under Trump. For the time being, there is no indication that Biden will be an “Obama III” when it comes to North Korea. There is a solid base for North Korea to build on.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo (@rpachecopardo), PhD, is the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at King’s College London.
Image: Shealah Craighead