President-elect Joe Biden will find that North Korea’s strategic objective of regime survival remains unchanged from the days when he was Vice-President. What has changed are the constraints, opportunities and therefore the options for North Korea’s security decision-makers. Firstly, the strategic environment in which North Korea operates has been transformed. China is no longer a rising power in East Asia. It is the dominant point of reference for U.S. allies as well as adversaries in East Asia. Secondly, as a result of Trump administration policy of maximum pressure, North Korea is as existentially dependent on China today as it was in the Korean War (1950-1953), which it survived only because of large-scale Chinese military intervention.
An opportunity and opening for fresh United States diplomatic initiatives comes about precisely because the scope and scale of North Korea’s strategic and economic dependence on China will not be welcome to North Korean decision-makers. The fear, often expressed in Korean (North and South) political and cultural narratives, is of being the “shrimp” of East Asian politics swallowed by the “whale” of neighbouring big powers. A constitutive part of North Korean national identity is the unrelenting insistence that it has and will continue to be absolutely independent in national decision-making.
This does not mean that the incoming Biden administration will have an easy path towards the U.S. goal of North Korean denuclearization. One inadvertent result of President Trump’s maximum pressure policy has been to make redundant formerly “tried and tested” instruments of United States foreign policy to North Korea.
The 2017 United Nations Security Council ban on natural gas exports and severe restrictions on oil product exports including, essential inputs for agriculture, was followed in 2018 by a dramatic reduction in domestic food production. (North Korea has no indigenous oil resources). Since 2018, China has provided fertiliser assistance and food aid, possibly of around a million tonnes a year, enough to feed eight million of the twenty-five million population at subsistence levels for a year. Russia has also provided food aid and both Russia and China have facilitated oil deliveries that the UN has argued are in contravention of the 2017 sanctions. Chinese and Russian food aid are both very large and provided with few conditions, except perhaps for an implicit agreement to a de facto freeze on nuclear testing. As a result, North Korea no longer needs U.S. humanitarian aid as an inducement to enter into a nuclear deal.
One problem militating against successful U.S. policy has been both the fetishization of the North Korean polity as unknowable and irrational, and, as former CIA analyst Bob Carlin points out, a disturbing factual ignorance from some involved in U.S. government decision-making. Too often this has led to an assumption that no detailed, means-ends North Korea strategy and policies can be designed that has any chance of success. In fact, North Korea’s security aims are not a mystery. Policies designed to negotiate a path between North Korea’s core aims and U.S. strategic concerns have much more of a chance of succeeding once that basic fact is recognized.
North Korea wants a guarantee of regime security and support for economic development. For the North Koreans, the aim is something like an international Treaty which would swap nuclear disarmament for regime security, probably with the U.S. and China as international guarantors. It could entail various innovative provisions that have been suggested in the past at closed door meetings between the United States and North Korea. These include “white-hatting” of United States troops in South Korea and restricting the presence of foreign troops North of the parallel in a future united or integrated Korea.
President-elect Joe Biden did not pay a prominent part in Obama administration-North Korea relations, which most charitably may be described as seeped in reciprocal animosity. North Korea’s long serving security officials will be much more aware of President-elect Joe Biden as former Chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Senator, President-elect Biden, supported fact-finding, bipartisan visits of senior Republican and Democratic officials to North Korea, which were well-received in Pyongyang and Washington, D.C.
If President Trump’s maximum pressure policy failed to achieve the core goal of denuclearization, it should be credited for the de-escalation of public hostilities that many had feared in 2017 were the prelude to imminent war. Trump administration diplomacy re-started now ongoing, if sporadic, back-channel discussions between North Korean and United States officials. An incoming Biden administration would have a running start if it wished to develop the sorts of innovative policy towards North Korea that resulted in the Iran nuclear deal, which was widely welcomed by U.S. allies, though not, of course, by the outgoing Trump administration. In a lesson very applicable to U.S. policy towards North Korea, the John Kerry-led diplomacy succeeded because it did not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
President-elect Biden has the policies and the personnel that could achieve similar results on North Korean denuclearization. The underreported achievements of the Nunn-Lugar de-nuclearization initiatives in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus provide an oven-ready blueprint for policy. Wendy Sherman, who the North Koreans know well from her time as Special Advisor to President Clinton and Policy Coordinator on North Korea, is one obvious example of someone with stature and experience to lead such an initiative.
Substantive diplomacy may also help achieve the strategic aim of the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, who wants a peninsula free of the real, ever-present threat of a war that U.S. military planners predict would kill millions, irrespective of the final outcome.
Hazel Smith is Professorial Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Professor Emerita of International Security, Cranfield University, UK; and Member of the Global Futures Council on Korea World Economic Forum. Image: Reuters