DPRK - USA Relations
North Korea habitually made provocations around the time when a new administration was inaugurated in the U.S. Afterwards, the North chose to change its attitude or continued to take a hard-line stance and confronted the U.S. Considering North Korea’s previous preemptive military provocations, many security experts speculate that the communist regime may launch a provocation around January 20 next year. If that happens, it is important how high the level of provocation will be. North Korea unveiled improved weaponry in a military parade in October. At this level, the North seemed like it wasn’t trying to provoke Trump. Nevertheless, some reports said that Trump was enraged. Anyways, even before Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. administration will likely continue to warn North Korea against any provocation.
On Friday the 13th, November 2020, Pyongyang's state media, KCNA, called President-elect Biden a "rabid dog," that needed to be "beaten to death with a stick." Biden's transition team promptly responded to North Korea's verbal assaults, suggesting the President-elect would wear such attacks like "a badge of honor." Biden has referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a "brutal dictator." Biden's approach, which may be similar to that of previous administrations, "increases the likelihood of North Korea reverting back to the familiar language of provocations. Some predict North Korea could conduct a nuclear or long-range missile test early in President Biden's term, to test his reaction. Biden could find himself disagreeing with Seoul's policy of getting closer to Pyongyang, as Moon continues to press for putting inter-Korean engagement ahead of pressuring Pyongyang on denuclearization and human rights.
Biden is a politician who served more than 30 years as a U.S. senator. He expressed his negative view on the 2018 North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore and stressed several times that he would first let working-level officials manage nuclear negotiations. A bottom-up approach takes a considerable amount of time, and North Korea may feel rather uncomfortable about Biden. Some analysts predict that he will inherit Obama’s North Korea policy known as “strategic patience,” which made the U.S. wait for North Korea to give up its nuclear programs under economic sanctions and pressure. Some others, however, believe that Biden will not repeat the “strategic patience” approach because the situation is different now. North Korea is much different now. When it conducted an intercontinental ballistic missile test in November 2017, it declared the completion of its nuclear force. Its nuclear program has moved on to pose a greater threat to the US.
Most experts predicted that North Korea-related issues will be put on the back burner in the early stage of the Biden administration. The incoming U.S. government will likely put priority on domestic issues such as the COVID-19 outbreak, the economy and racial conflicts. Even in diplomatic and security matters, it is expected to focus on restoring international trust and strengthening alliances with other countries first, rather than dealing with North Korea. If the Biden government delays negotiations with North Korea, the North may push ahead with provocations.
It was clear North Korea isn't exactly high up on Biden's agenda, and understandably so, as Americans were dealing with the global pandemic, an economic downturn, and contentious social issues. But North Korea doesn't take kindly to being forgotten. Pyongyang may deliberately stoke tension if it believes the new U.S. government is less interested in North Korea than the Trump administration. North Korea’s high expectations about the Obama government prompted it to resort to a series of provocations. Ironically, North Korea had a very hard time during the eight years of that government, due to strong sanctions. Having learned a lesson, North Korea may adjust the level and frequency of its provocations under a Biden presidency.
The Biden campaign website characterized the president-elect’s foreign policy plans as a restoration of U.S. leadership. Regarding threats like a nuclear North Korea, the campaign said it would be “reaching out to our partners in Asia to fortify our collective capabilities… We will also strengthen our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Asian democracies.” The campaign said “In North Korea, President Biden will empower our negotiators and jump start a sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others, including China, to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea”.
Michelle Flournoy said in October 2020 that North Korea's nukes are now an issue of "risk management." Susan Rice said in an op-ed in 2017 that the U.S. "can, if it must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea the same way it tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War." It is possible that the Biden administration might not even push for denuclearization.
North Korea habitually made provocations around the time when a new administration was inaugurated in the U.S. Afterwards, the North chose to change its attitude or continued to take a hard-line stance and confronted the U.S. Considering North Korea’s previous preemptive military provocations, many security experts speculate that the communist regime may launch a provocation around January 20 next year. If that happens, it is important how high the level of provocation will be. North Korea unveiled improved weaponry in a military parade in October. At this level, the North seemed like it wasn’t trying to provoke Trump. Nevertheless, some reports said that Trump was enraged.
North Korea kicked off the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party on 05 January 2021. Kim said that his country would approach the U.S. on the principle of “hard-line for hard-line, goodwill for goodwill.” He added that the North would focus its foreign policy on containing and subduing the U.S., its foremost principal enemy and the fundamental obstacle to the development of its revolution. What North Korea meant was that there would be little change in North Korea-U.S. relations unless the U.S. recognizes the North as a nuclear weapons state and lifts sanctions on the North. That is, Pyongyang will never yield to Washington’s demand for nuclear disarmament but will only boost its nuclear deterrent to directly confront the U.S. Kim’s remarks show that the prospects for North Korea-U.S. relations are not very bright.
Kim said that his country would improve the ability of ICBMs and develop hypersonic weapons. By developing ICBMs that would neutralize the missile defense system, North Korea seeks to equip itself with nuclear strike capabilities. He also mentioned the plan to develop a nuclear-powered submarine. North Korea seeks to confront the U.S.’s threats and ensure its survival through stronger defense and nuclear capabilities. The future of North Korea-U.S. relations may depend on how the new U.S. government will respond to North Korea’s attitude like this.
The Trump administration spent two months re-evaluating the Obama administration. Biden will announce new policies toward the North, but not immediately. But new the U.S. President has already made it clear that he is willing to meet with Kim Jong-unbut under one condition: that the Korean Peninsula is to be a nuclear-free zone.
With the return of diplomats from the Obama era, the Biden administration is likely to seek a phased, bottom-up approach. "We intend to review the entire approach and policy toward North Korea, because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration and it's a problem that has not gotten better. In fact, it's gotten worse." Blinken also hinted at the possibility of humanitarian aid being sent to Pyeongyang.
But Biden's focus on Washington's allies and re-embracing multilateralism may help facilitate talks with North Korea. "Based on the South Korea-U.S. alliance, Seoul's role will expand during Washington's process of reviewing policies on North Korea. Considering there is no connecting link between Biden and Kim Jong-un, Seoul's role will be recognized which could help inter-Korean relations."
The Joe Biden government said that it will come up with a “new strategy” on North Korea. On January 22, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the U.S. had a vital interest in deterring North Korea and would adopt a new strategy. The White House used the expression, “a new approach,” indicating that the Biden government’s North Korea policy will be different from that of the Trump government. While former president Donald Trump preferred a “top-down” negotiation approach, it is widely expected that Biden will choose a “step-by-step” approach that was taken by the Obama administration. Biden will certainly stay away from Trump’s “America First” policy and place more emphasis on cooperation with allies instead.
Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim has been appointed as Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. He played a key part in nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. under both the Obama and Trump governments. He served as the top U.S. envoy for the six-party talks and held working-level talks with North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.
The South Korea-U.S. joint military drill scheduled for March 2021 could be the moment of truth, as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said at the regime's party congress last week that Seoul and Washington should suspend their combined military drills. Pyeongyang recently called the U.S. its "biggest enemy" and is expected to watch how the Biden administration unfolds before making its move.
Pyongyang wishes to gain recognition as a nuclear state before doing anything. But it seems to be impossible for President Biden as well as his foreign policy team to accept the demand. The leaders of the U.S. and Japan have reaffirmed the need to achieve North Korea's complete denuclearization. US President Joe Biden held a phone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for the first time on 27 January 2021.
American recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear weapon state, even if by tacitly dropping the goal of eventual denuclearization, would open the door to recognition of Pakistan and India as nuclear weapons states, contrary to the terms of the Nuclear Non-Propliferation Treaty. It would also implicitly legitimize the nuclear aspirations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, not to mention Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and other claimants. Donald Trump seemed to have no problems with this scenario, but he was a minority of one.
US negotiators, under the new Biden administration, could be faced with making a decision between pursuing gradual or seeking complete denuclearization in North Korea. The 'incremental dismantlement' of the North's nuclear program would be followed by gradual relief from sanctions. Whereas, 'a big deal', demanding complete denuclearization,… would result in the full removal of sanctions on North Korea. Biden and his top aides prefer a bottom-up, step-by-step approach.
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