The election of liberal Joe Biden to succeed conservative Donald Trump comes at the worst moment for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as he battles hunger and poverty among his own people on top of a COVID-19 pandemic that he refuses to acknowledge.
To the dismay of Kim as he contemplates whether to greet Biden’s victory with more missile launches, Biden is expected to look for advice not to his instincts, as did Trump while falling “in love” with Kim during their three meetings, but to veteran advisers urging a go-slow approach.
Biden’s victory means the U.S. will enthusiastically support alliances that Trump has scorned while demanding allies, from Britain to South Korea and Japan, ante up more money and muscle.
As a result of Trump’s shrill calls for bigger contributions from members nations of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as Korea and Japan, he has compromised defenses against both Russia and China.
Russia first signaled its preference for Trump in cyberattacks during his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton while Trump has mounted an increasingly virulent trade war with China, North Korea’s only real ally.
Among Biden’s first acts as president should be to come to terms with South Korea on how much the South owes to keep U.S. bases and 28,500 U.S. troops in the country.
The talks stalled after Trump demanded an outlandish $5 billion a year, more than five times the $927 million the South paid last year. Next, the U.S. and South Korea might resume joint military exercises that Trump cancelled, without informing his defense secretary, after his first summit with Kim in Singapore in June 2018.
Now the question is whether Kim will test Biden’s will “as an intended sign of strength,” said Victor Cha, who advised on Korea during the presidency of George W. Bush, “but that would only shape a policy review in the administration towards more pressure and sanctions.”
Kim has ordered numerous tests of mid-to-short range missiles since the Singapore summit but last tested an ICBM, intercontinental ballistic missile, in November 2017. North Korea conducted its sixth underground test in September 2017 but has not exploded a nuclear warhead since then.
“North Korea has historically ramped up tensions early in a new U.S. and South Korean administration to induce concessions,” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation. “Provocations could include the initial launch of the new ICBM revealed in North Korea’s October 10 parade or another nuclear test. Such blatant violations of UN resolutions could be one of the Biden administration’s first foreign policy crises.”
Klingner, however, predicts that Biden will adopt a modulated almost centrist approach of “policy over personality,” somewhere between threatening to attack North Korea and embracing him as did Trump. “Much remains uncertain,” he said, including how strongly Biden will want to enforce U.S. sanctions laws.”
The operative phrase for the eight years while Barack Obama was president and Biden was vice president was “strategic patience” in which the U.S. did nothing while the North increased its nuclear stockpile.
“We will see a return to many of Obama’s policies,” said Steve Tharp, who’s observed North Korea for decades as an army officer and civilian expert with the U.S. command in Seoul. The Biden team will include “a lot of the same advisors under Obama.”
As for North Korea’s response, Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations predicts that North Korean policy might emerge during the eighth congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, to be held shortly before Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
“I am inclined to downplay the possibility of provocations until then,” said Snyder, despite “the past pattern of North Korean behavior coinciding with other US leadership transitions.”
South Korea, stymied in attempts to reopen stalled talks with the North, remains fearful of a return to hardline confrontation. Moon would love to reach an “end-of-war” agreement that would formally end hostilities dating to the Korean War, but no one believes Kim will negotiate away his nuclear program despite U.S. and U.N sanctions and COVID-19.
China’s President Xi Jinping has been lavishing praise on the alliance with North Korea, claiming victory when Chinese troops rescued the communist regime 70 years ago from advancing U.S. and South Korean forces.
Xi has vowed China would do it again in the event of a second Korean War, but Kim Jong-un’s power has weakened during the COVID pandemic. He steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the spread of the disease among his impoverished people while closing his borders with China, stifling movement inside North Korea and welcoming advice from the World Health Organization.
“Biden will push working-level nuclear weapon negotiations with North Korea,” said Bruce Bennett, long-time North Korea watcher at the Rand Corporation, but Kim “is desperate to establish a position of power and influence for himself” and “nuclear weapons are a key legacy of his father and grandfather” — Kim Il-sung, who ruled for nearly 50 years, and his son, Kim Jong-il, in power for 17 years before dying in 2011 when Jong-un, 28 at the time, inherited the throne.
Kim, as third-generation leader, “has made it clear that he views nuclear weapons as key to his survival,” said Bennett. “He is pursuing not just tens of nuclear weapons but hundreds.”
Biden “faces a tough situation,” said Evans Revere, long-time senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul. “Denuclearization is now an almost unattainable goal. Kim believes more strongly than ever that nuclear weapons guarantee his regime’s survival.”
Biden’s job will be to try to persuade him otherwise.
That would be somewhere between “the impossible dream” and “mission impossible.”