Would Kim Jong-un welcome Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election?
It is not clear whom Kim prefers between Donald Trump and Biden, but he seems to have his own timetable, irrespective of whoever becomes U.S. president. Biden may adopt the policy of ‘strategic patience’ toward North Korea like Barack Obama did or give diplomacy another chance like Trump. Of course, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in government would like to see Biden to resume diplomacy with North Korea.
However, whatever policy the Biden administration puts in place, Kim Jong-un seems to have his own timetable. In fact, the inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean summits began with Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s address. In 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test and launched the Hwasong-15 rocket, raising the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. President Trump expressed his famous phrase “fire and fury” and the U.S. policy toward North Korea was “maximum pressure.” The South Korean government also criticized the North Korean provocations and warned of military response. However, Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address led to North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and inter-Korean contacts. After that, Trump’s “fire and fury” turned into the love letters.
Even with Biden now poised to become U.S. president, North Korea is not likely to respond to the U.S. leadership change in a different way. North Korea has already declared its “head-on breakthrough” strategy at the 5th Plenary Meeting of 7th Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea in December 2019. North Korea decided to seek a long-term survival strategy against the United States. The North Korean perception was that the United States had no intention of lifting economic sanctions even with North Korea’s promise to abandon the Yongbyon nuclear facilities at Hanoi summit, so that they needed to bypass and overcome the sanctions to win the long-term confrontation. They concluded that the U.S. hostile policy against North Korea would not be abolished in a short period of time. As a result, North Korea made it clear that it would not resume the nuclear negotiations in the way the United States wants. Kim Yo-jong, who is Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and also deputy director of the Korean Workers’ Party, insisted that North Korea would not be involved again in the nuclear dialogue unless the United States changes its negotiation strategy.
In the end, North Korea’s declaration of “head-on breakthrough” implies that the Biden administration’s negotiations with North Korea is not easy. Moreover, Biden’s return to Obama’s strategic patience makes it more difficult to persuade North Korea to come back to the negotiation table. In this case, there is a high possibility that tensions between North Korea and the United States will rise again, and that Kim Jong-un will no longer observe his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing.
North Korea is now concentrating on dealing with the coronavirus. This may be the main reason for its quietness. If the coronavirus situation gets better, North Korea may move forward according to its own timetable. Before that, the United States and South Korea need to think about what kind of policies they can take to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table.
Jihwan Hwang is professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Seoul and a member of the South Korean President’s Commission on Policy Planning.