[Column] Why is Kim Jong-un remaining silent on Joe Biden’s election?

Posted on : 2020-12-17 17:25 KST Modified on : 2020-12-17 17:25 KST
Sanctions are not as effective as the West would like to think
Park Jong-su
Park Jong-su

By Park Jong-su, former diplomat in Russia

World leaders have hurried to congratulate Joe Biden on his election as US president. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping got around to sending a congratulatory message.

But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has remained silent. Why could that be? What does North Korea stand to gain from biding its time?

During the first North Korean nuclear crisis, the Clinton administration hadn’t offered any fundamental solution aside from a light water reactor. So Kim Jong-il ordered Kang Sok-ju, who was representing Pyongyang in high-level talks with the US in Geneva in July 1993, to play for time. Even during the terrible famine known euphemistically as the Arduous March, North Korea didn’t halt its nuclear weapon development.

After denouncing North Korea as being part of the “axis of evil,” US President George W. Bush had a North Korean bank account at Banco Delta Asia frozen in September 2005. But rather than raising the white flag, as expected, North Korea countered with its first nuclear weapon test in October 2006.

When Ri Yong-ho, the North’s first ambassador to the UK, was appointed Foreign Minister three years ago, he knew what his predecessor Kang Sok-ju meant when he asked him to stall for two or three years.

The Obama administration ignored North Korea’s nuclear weapon development for eight years with its policy of “strategic patience.” Kim Jong-il went ahead with the North’s second nuclear test in May 2009, and his son Kim Jong-un, as soon as he took power, started setting off nukes and shooting off rockets as if they were fireworks.

The North successfully tested a hydrogen bomb in its sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and then test launched the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is capable of striking the American mainland, that November.

In the months after his inauguration, US President Donald Trump locked horns with Kim Jong-un before becoming the first US president in history to hold a summit with a North Korean leader. But the North Korean nuclear talks have been at a standstill for nearly two years since the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi.

Finally, North Korea unveiled its “monster” ICBM, the world’s longest such missile, during a parade on the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). In effect, Trump himself ended up helping North Korea buy more time for its development of nuclear weapons and missiles. A report by the US military said that North Korea could produce 100 nuclear warheads by the end of this year.

N. Korea unlikely to face another famine

Predictions that North Korea will face another famine if international sanctions remain in place are just wishful thinking on the part of the West. The North suffered a serious famine in the late 1990s because of chaotic developments, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decision by Russia and China — the North’s long-standing allies — to establish diplomatic relations with South Korea.

Try as it might, the North couldn’t find any countries to lend it aid. The only thing it could rely on was its Juche ideology. It was just as Putin once remarked: North Koreans would “rather eat grass” than give up.

Despite back-breaking sanctions, Kim Jong-un has China and Russia in his corner. In particular, Russia is in the same boat as North Korea, since it’s also under sanctions by the West. It’s providing food and energy to North Korea through various methods and channels.

Before the pandemic, train stations on the border between Russia and North Korea operated 24 hours a day. The North Korean military depends entirely upon Russia. The situation isn’t comparable to the famine of the 1990s.

In contrast with Trump, Biden prefers a “bottom-up” approach to foreign policy. That inevitably takes a lot more time than the “top-down” approach. Kim Jong-un slammed Biden during the US presidential election as a “rabid dog,” and Biden returned the favor by labeling Kim a “thug.” There’s also a huge gap in their viewpoints on human rights issues. They’re going to need a little time to cool off.

At the end of his speech on the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong-un declared that “time is on our side.” That’s a boast we ought to give some thought to.

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

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