[Column] Kim Jong-un needs to exercise patience after saying goodbye to Trump

Posted on : 2020-11-26 17:47 KST Modified on : 2020-11-26 17:47 KST
US President-elect Joe Biden introduces his foreign policy staff at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. (AP/Yonhap News)
US President-elect Joe Biden introduces his foreign policy staff at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. (AP/Yonhap News)

Rushing to test new administration’s policy toward Pyongyang could make things worse

A column in the New York Times allows us to surmise the North Korea policy of Antony Blinken, whom US President-elect Joe Biden has nominated to become secretary of state. Blinken helped arrange the Iranian nuclear deal during the Obama administration, and he believes the North Korean nuclear issue should be resolved in the same way. He thinks that the Iran nuclear negotiations owed their success to focusing on eliminating nuclear weapons, production facilities, and missiles, while keeping other issues, such as human rights, off the negotiating agenda.

Clearly, that was a realistic and effective approach. But Blinken also thinks the US should work with Korea’s neighbors to enact tough economic pressure on the North until it faithfully engages in gradual nuclear talks. Blinken said it was a mistake for Trump to meet Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s “dictator,” without asking anything in return.

Biden likely to prioritize rebuilding relations with Europe

Considering Biden and Blinken’s perspective on North Korea, the question of how North Korea and the US launch their negotiations is of the utmost importance. Trump called Kim “my friend,” but Biden doesn’t appear to have any trust in or expectations for the North Korean regime. Since Biden seeks to “make America respected around the world again,” his foreign policy will obviously prioritize restoring alliances with Europe.

Various remarks made during the presidential campaign suggest that Biden will probably put off the North Korean issue rather than giving it his urgent attention. “It will take a few months for the Biden administration to work out its North Korean policy and reach out to North Korea for negotiations. It’s important for the North to patiently watch developments until that time,” said a South Korean government official who is familiar with the Biden camp.

The critical factor is how North Korea responds to the new American administration. Whereas the summit with Trump was relatively easy to arrange, the North Koreans no doubt expect that the Biden administration will have a higher threshold for negotiations and that talks will be trickier once underway. North Korea is certainly capable of concluding, as it has often done in the past, that ratcheting up tensions is an effective way to lower that threshold.

N. Korea has used show of force to increase leverage at beginning of new US administration

There are several examples of North Korea using a show of force to raise tensions around the beginning of a new American administration. President George W. Bush, who labeled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil,” was followed by Barack Obama, who took office in January 2009. North Korea fired a long-range missile that April and tested a nuclear weapon in May. Following Obama’s reelection, the North fired another long-range missile in December 2012 and then carried out its third nuclear test soon after Obama’s second inauguration.

The result of such behavior was the policy of ignoring North Korea, couched in the phrase “strategic patience.” While Obama had no intention of launching a military attack on North Korea, he made no serious effort to resolve the nuclear issue. We should bear in mind that both Biden and Blinken contributed to this attitude under the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, there is still a possibility that North Korea will heighten military tensions in Northeast Asia with a show of force. As part of the North’s efforts to fend off the COVID-19 pandemic, it has reportedly refused to accept food offered by China. This suggests that the economic situation in the country is not grave, despite UN sanctions. In addition, South Korean and American surveillance networks have picked up indications that the North is preparing to test a submarine-launched ballistic missile in a base on its eastern coast.

The North Korea-US talks have been at a standstill for some time now, and the North has promised to strengthen its defensive military capabilities, focusing on its nuclear arsenal. Thus, it could make a show of force at any time without surprising anyone. The North could begin with short-range missiles and gradually dial up to long-range missiles.

But such an approach is unlikely to be effective at getting the attention of Biden and his administration. The failure of the Obama administration’s North Korea policy offers an important lesson not only for the US but also for North Korea.

This is the beginning. Whereas North Korea would like the US to rush to offer a solution to the nuclear issue, it needs to accept the reality that, in Washington, Korean Peninsula issues take a back seat to Europe and the Middle East.

Regardless of how we assess the three North Korea-US summits during Donald Trump’s presidency, they certainly represent an important and irreversible turning point in relations between the two countries. They’re also why the Biden administration can’t begin negotiations with North Korea where the Obama administration left off. Racing to see how the Biden administration will apply Obama’s and Trump’s experiences might only make the situation worse. What North Korean leader Kim Jong-un needs right now is patience.

By Park Chan-su, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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