The North Korean leadership seems to still believe the panacea for its security dilemmas is its nuclear arsenal, the “dagger with ten thousand uses.” Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ensure that the world’s only superpower cannot seriously consider military options and give Pyongyang a military edge over its much richer southern neighbor in the arms race on the peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are also a way to boost the loyalty of officials and the North Korean people in general. Hence, getting Pyongyang to give up its “treasured sword” will be as difficult as it would be to get India, Pakistan or Israel to do the same with their nuclear weapons.
In his report to the recent Eighth Workers’ Party Congress, Kim Jong-un described the “completion of the great cause of building a state nuclear force” as “of the greatest significance in national history in front of the Party and revolution, the fatherland and the people, and future generations.” He also laid out the goal of continuing to develop tactical nuclear weapons and larger nuclear warheads. Moreover, Kim revealed that the development of designs for nuclear submarines had reached its final evaluation phase and that designs for military reconnaissance satellites had also been completed. Hence, the North Korean nuclear issue is likely to soon become a pressing and difficult problem for the Biden administration.
Yet, nuclear weapons are not enough. North Korea’s path to greater economic development is blocked by some of the strongest sanctions ever imposed on a country by the international community. Kim Jong-un has not ruled out reopening negotiations with the United States. We should remember that his younger sister Kim Yo-jong said in a statement dated July 10, 2020: “I remind the U.S. that the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula can be realized only when there are major changes made on the other side, i.e. the irreversible simultaneous major steps to be taken in parallel with our actions.” These points bear further consideration.
Given what we have seen in the last four years, realizing the near-impossible task of denuclearization after the Biden administration takes office will require a new and creative approach to the problem. I am of the view that Vice President Kamala Harris should be given full authority to sit down and negotiate with her counterpart, Kim Yo-jong, the de facto number two in the North Korean power hierarchy. I believe this would be a good idea for a number of reasons.
First of all, North Korea’s U.S. policy is presided over by Kim Yo-jong. In addition, her most logical counterpart is the Vice President. Kim Yo-jong’s actual seniority within the power elite (as opposed to the formal hierarchy) has been noted by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, and her official activities and public statements further confirm her station as second-in-command.
Moreover, the experience of the Trump administration with summits and working-level talks speaks to the need for a new approach. Prior to the Hanoi Summit, the North Korean side in working-level talks persistently stuck to the view that only Kim Jong-un himself could discuss the issue of denuclearization. Consequently, the two sides were unable to bridge the differences in positions on either denuclearization itself or U.S. corresponding measures.
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump met without significant preparations made on either of these two issues, and the summit ultimately ended in no deal. Subsequently, in late June 2019, Kim and Trump met again at Panmunjom, and agreed to resume working-level talks, but in October talks in Stockholm ended without a narrowing of the gulf that separated the two sides.
Hence, the Biden administration should look beyond the existing top-down and bottom-up approaches to something new that could deliver a compromise. The second-in-command of both countries should first meet to discuss in detail the twin issues of denuclearization and corresponding measures before an agreement is unveiled at a summit.
We should not forget how powerful those responsible for nuclear and missile developments are, and how weak officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) are in the North Korean leadership at present. Korean People’s Army Marshal Ri Pyong-chol, the person who supervised nuclear and missile development, is currently a member of the Workers’ Party Central Committee Politburo’s Presidium, the vice-chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission, and officially possibly number four in the power hierarchy. By contrast, Ri Son-gwon, North Korea’s Foreign Minister was elected an alternate member of the Politburo in April 2020 and is as low as number thirty in the official pecking order. The main foreign policy spokesperson post-Hanoi, first vice-minister Choe Son-hee, is not a member of the Politburo. She also was not included among the roster of 138 full members of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, relegated to being among the mere alternate members.
It appears rather implausible that even if senior MOFA officials sat down with their U.S. diplomatic counterparts again, they would be able to actively negotiate on the issue over the opposition of North Korea’s munitions sector and the military leadership. After all, those MOFA officials’ standing within the North Korean power elite is rather weak. Someone who can reach Kim Jong-un directly whenever needed is the person who should lead the North Korean side in negotiations, namely Kim Yo-jong.
Further, given her seniority, Vice President Harris could help balance the diverse views on North Korea policy within the executive branch. Since the Trump administration did not have a coherent North Korea policy, the President, Vice President, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State each spoke with a different voice on the issue. This generated significant mistrust from the North Korean side and was a major reason why substantial progress remained elusive. Hence, the Biden administration must ensure that its key officials present a united front on the North Korean issue.
If someone with the standing of Vice President Harris were to be put in charge of negotiations with the North, she could minimize the policy vacuum created by the transition of one administration to the next. The Vice Presidency is an elected position that does not need to be confirmed by Congress, unlike the next Secretary of State. Hence, Vice President Harris could also immediately work closely with her counterparts in Seoul on the issue.
Her leadership would allay fears in Seoul that the North Korean nuclear issue is not a top priority for the new administration. While negotiations between the Trump administration and Pyongyang failed to significantly reduce North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, they did at least reduce tensions, with North Korea refraining from additional nuclear tests, as well as medium and long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, while also destroying a nuclear test site. For that reason, the South Korean government is of the view that U.S.-North Korea summitry has proven very useful. The South Korean people appear to believe that as well: in a poll conducted by the Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU) from early November to early December last year, 73% of South Koreans said that they hoped for the resumption of summits after the Biden administration takes office.
However, because President Biden was highly critical of the summits held by then-President Trump and Chairman Kim, there are also heightened fears in South Korea that President Biden will downgrade talks between Washington and Pyongyang to the working level. And for reasons already discussed above, this action would likely condemn such talks to gridlock.
If Vice President Harris were to be put in charge of North Korea policy, this would be viewed in Pyongyang as a signal that the new Biden administration took negotiations with North Korea very seriously. It would likely have the effect of deterring Pyongyang from engaging in additional military provocations, like medium/long-range ICBM or nuclear tests. Hence, such an appointment would also be useful to the Biden administration in promoting stability on the Korean peninsula.
On top of that, if Vice President Harris and Kim Yo-jong were to negotiate and agree to terms on reducing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and on corresponding measures, this would allow for a successful summit between the two sides without the possibility of a “no-deal” outcome. Even if Harris and Kim fail to reach agreement immediately during their first meeting, this would not shock the North Korean leadership nor would it likely discredit the entire process in Washington. Hence, less would ride on significant diplomatic meetings between the two sides, making both sides more likely to accept such an arrangement.
For such negotiations to work, both governments must vest their negotiators with significant discretionary authority. And while a willingness to bring about denuclearization is important, a realistic strategy is also just as important. The Biden administration will need to work closely with Seoul and Beijing to make such a strategy a reality, and someone with the standing of Vice President Harris will be needed to create a comprehensive new strategy that would be acceptable to Pyongyang on the issue of gradual denuclearization (nuclear capacity reduction) and corresponding measures from the international community. Such a strategy might take the form of a report that helps to secure a significant diplomatic success for the Biden administration and for its Vice President.