When it comes to predicting foreign policy, North Korea is the hardest of hard targets because there is not enough access to necessary information for consistent, high-level accuracy. Instead, analysts rely on evaluating past North Korean government decisions and applying them to current issues to infer possible future outcomes. As president-elect Joe Biden will soon lead the United States, North Korea is most likely speculating whether Biden will resurrect past U.S. policies from the Obama administration or pursue a new path, incorporating aspects from both the Obama and Trump administrations.
The idea that a rogue state like North Korea will voluntarily abandon its nuclear arsenal if under enough economic or diplomatic pressure does not consider the sociopolitical makeup of the country. It is the only Confucian, communist, hereditary dynasty in the world. Since its formation in 1948, North Korea has followed a strict cultural policy of heredity succession of power, as well as the pursuit of nuclear weapons. North Korean leadership views the pursuit and obtainment of nuclear weapons as essential to its legitimacy, sovereignty, and ability to control its people. Moreover, North Korea blames its economic fragility on heavy U.S. economic sanctions to justify its obsession with nuclear proliferation under the guise of protecting its people from “military threat by imperialist reactionaries and other hostile forces.” As North Korea has already acquired an advanced arsenal of destructive and lethal weapons, the United States should now focus on how to deal with a heavily nuclearized North Korea as opposed to how to denuclearize North Korea. Any other approach to North Korea simply boldens its reticent stance on nuclear proliferation.
If the incoming Biden administration resurrects the fallen policies of the Obama administration, Pyongyang will most likely respond with similar provocations seen from that era, ranging from ballistic missile tests to sophisticated cyberattacks. Following failed attempts at rapprochement with North Korea through the Six-Party Talks under former President George W. Bush, the Obama administration responded with “strategic patience” to address the North Korean nuclear threat. This policy refused to diplomatically engage with North Korea until leader Kim Jong-un committed to complete denuclearization. This clearly failed as North Korea continued to develop, test, and expand its nuclear arsenal. Years later, North Korea signaled its success and continued intent to pursue weapons of mass destruction with numerous missile tests. However, inter-Korean relations during the Obama era and today vary drastically which granted North Korea opportunity to deepen the divide between Washington and Seoul to its benefit.
Unlike the previous joint U.S.-ROK approach to North Korea under President Obama and President Park, both current South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump chose to unilaterally engage with North Korea without seeking any collaboration, support, or guidance from one another. As a result, Kim Jong-un is now in the unique position where he managed to lull American threats of a preemptive strike into an exchange of personal hand-written letters. Kim also convened several diplomatic engagements with Moon while dodging political lash-back from the murder of a South Korean public official lost at sea. Any chasm in the U.S.-ROK alliance allows ample opportunity for North Korea to expand its illicit proliferation activities at home and abroad. Therefore, Pyongyang will most likely continue to engage with Seoul unilaterally at the expense of the U.S.-ROK alliance if the Biden administration reenacts a strategic patience policy.
If the incoming Biden administration chooses to expand Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, Pyongyang will likely continue its sophisticated sanctions evasions tactics while gauging the new president’s interest in North Korea and his approach to the U.S-ROK alliance before testing new ballistic missiles. Following the results of the U.S. election, Pyongyang has remained quiet, possibly analyzing how much the Biden administration’s North Korean policy may vary from that of Obama and Trump. However, as both strategic patience and maximum pressure policies failed to denuclearize North Korea, the Biden administration should seek new ways to deal with the nuclear state. The misunderstanding of North Korea’s political identity continues to benefit the Kim Regime. Attempts to denuclearize the country through diplomatic rapprochement and economic coercion continue to fail. For North Korea, losing nuclear weapons is synonymous with losing sovereignty and U.S. invasion. While sanctions are necessary to limit the potential of future weapon development and hold proliferators responsible, North Korea has already acquired a substantive nuclear arsenal. Now the United States needs to consider how to deal with this hostile nuclear state.
Jason Bartlett is a Research Assistant for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He previously worked at CSIS Korea Chair and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.