Whether and how North Korea will respond will depend on the extent to which the new administration will reverse and undo the Trump administration’s foreign policy. What “reverse” means remains elusive when it comes to North Korea policy. This is because the policy of “strategic patience” comprising sanctions and pressure since the Obama days continued into the Trump era. The only notable difference was that both North Korea and President Trump neither held back escalatory behavior and words nor tamped down their mutual admiration that included multiple letter exchanges which amounted to nothing when it came to U.S.-North Korea relations.
Biden promised “principled diplomacy” with North Korea, but this comes with a caveat that North Korea will even respond to either Seoul or Washington.
At this point, however, North Korea has no reason to respond at all.
It achieved its goal of declaring itself as a nuclear state in November 2017 which triggered off a set of de-escalatory processes facilitated by South Korea that culminated in three Trump-Kim meetings. In other words, Kim Jong-un agreed to talks with the United States in 2018 because he had a leverage—the completion of nuclear weapons development even as the country was being isolated and under pressure for years. But South Korea’s facilitating role under the Moon administration is ever more constricted today than in early 2018 after Pyongyang accused Seoul in July of being “nosy” in its business with America.
Meanwhile the United States has been preoccupied with endless domestic political crises worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. The Biden transition team is prioritizing non-traditional security issues (the coronavirus, economy, racial equity, and climate change), signaling the need to turn inward first before venturing out to rebuild America’s diplomatic capital. As I argued in September, proactively restoring friendlier relations with allies and friends is a necessary condition for the Biden administration to start making moves toward North Korea.
Even if North Korea seems to have its attention turned away from the leadership transition in the United States, Pyongyang would be keeping an eye on a couple of Trump-era issues that will impact its perception of Biden administration’s foreign policy. First, the future of the Iran Deal and U.S.-Iran nuclear diplomacy, and, second, America’s ability to reclaim and reassert influence in East Asia amid soured relations with Beijing. The former has to do with U.S. willingness to re-engage diplomatically with defiant states while the latter has to do with U.S. political investment in the region as Trump-era foreign policy seriously undermined America’s international standing among both friends and foes.
While North Korea, like Iran, could continue thriving on its resistant identity against the U.S.-led international order, the erosion of U.S. diplomatic capital in the past four years would inevitably call into question their assumptions about the U.S.-led order and the need to engage with a great power that is currently swamped with domestic and international challenges.
Put succinctly, Pyongyang would be mulling over this question with regards to Biden’s North Korea policy: would it be change (increased diplomatic engagement) within continuity (U.S.-led sanctions and isolation), or continuity (little diplomatic engagement) within change (weakened U.S. global leadership)?
Minseon Ku is a PhD candidate in International Relations at The Ohio State University.