North Korea’s nuclear issues seem almost like a distant memory in light of how dramatically the world has changed since the 2019 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi. Since then, the looming threat and daunting consequences of unchecked nuclear weapons displaced in the interim by the imminent challenges and loss of life wreaked by the coronavirus.
Countries have found themselves vulnerable as the pandemic strains global supply chains, revealing an unforgiving, chaotic facet of globalization that seriously disrupted the availability of necessary supplies such as masks. The simmering rivalry between China and the U.S. has quickly escalated to become overtly confrontational. A new need for international cooperation has emerged, but the international situation has become less conducive to realize it.
It is quite clear though that as the volatile ebb and flow of the pandemic settles in as an inevitable fact of life, the United States and the rest of the world will again face ongoing nuclear issues, including North Korea’s. Yet the domestic impact of the pandemic on North Korea has direct bearing upon the resolution of its nuclear issues. Most damaging was the dampening impact on North Korea’s display of flexing its nuclear muscle. The pandemic coupled with disastrous floods shifted Pyongyang’s priorities to immediate survival, in turn considerably diminishing the political and diplomatic utility of nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s nuclear strategies have been closely related to its domestic agenda. Kim Jung-il, the current leader’s father, envisaged nuclear development as a form of leverage to create an environment favorable to domestic systemic change; such hopes have been dashed so far and have now been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Intensifying U.S.-Chinese competition and confrontation will only continue to fan North Korea’s effort to signal its strategic importance to Washington. So far, the United States has not responded to North Korea’s appeals. Ultimately, the effectiveness of such signaling amidst tension between the China and America will set the tone for nuclear negotiations.
As it stands, North Korea is more likely to negotiate than any time in the past, yet at the same time will amplify its presence as a threat in order to convey that they are not desperate. In the meantime, the new U.S. administration that will emerge in 2021 may seriously contemplate military options given the frustrations from the inefficacies of the prior two summits. If this happens, it will be déjà vu of early 2017.
There are two important legacies of the Trump presidency in handling North Korea: One is the summit formula, and the other is the fact that the United States, for the first time, approached North Korea with North Korea’s agenda for domestic reforms. If negotiations with North Korea are to yield any possibility of success, the latter legacy demands further attention. The blueprints for North Korea’s reforms should be more specific and acceptable to North Korea with the realization that the immediate priority of North Korea is system renewal and survival. At the same time, more judicious preparatory work is needed before any sort of negotiation is launched.
Yong-Chool Ha is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Social Science at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies and a Professor Emeritus of Seoul National University. He served as a member of the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning and on advisory committees to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Unification, and the Ministry of National Defense.