It is hard to imagine a less propitious environment for successful policymaking than the one that will likely greet President Joe Biden when he enters the White House on January 20, 2021. The nation’s economy is suffering. Coronavirus deaths are spiking. Racial tensions are exploding. Ugly partisanship characterizes both the political system and the national mood. And soon after inauguration, President Biden can expect another troubling item to land on his “to-do” list: North Korea.
Most signs suggest that North Korea is a fairly low priority for the incoming administration. Instead, its focus is clear: economic recovery; the coronavirus; race relations; and climate change. North Korea, however, doesn’t like to be ignored. A few months after President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, North Korea tested a multi-stage rocket over the Pacific and shortly thereafter detonated a small nuclear device. President Trump received a similar greeting, including the North’s first test of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4. The North also has a long history of striking out in foreign policy during times of internal distress, as a means to rally the people behind the Kim family. With America’s current international standing damaged by four years of President Trump’s strategic incoherence and the new administration clearly focus on more immediate domestic matters, Pyongyang has an even freer hand than it has sometimes had in the past. Now North Korea is preparing to engage with a president who has compared Kim Jong-un to Adolf Hitler and who, in return, has been denigrated by North Korean state media as “an imbecile bereft of elementary quality as a human being,” and a “rabid dog [that] must be beaten to death with a stick.” One certainly expects, then, that something will emerge from Pyongyang in early 2021 other than another “very beautiful letter.”
Yet, as that famous strategic thinker Peter Parker might have said, with small provocation sometimes comes small opportunity. Although the North has a range of possible actions at its disposal to test the incoming administration, a moderate course seems most likely, perhaps an ICBM test over the Pacific or another series of short-range missile launches. Direct provocation against the South or Japan or another nuclear test would likely involve more risk than Kim wants in these unstable times. North Korea has hardly been left unscathed by the turmoil of 2020, with party leadership even admitting in August to “severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges.” Accordingly, Kim seems to have his government focused on responding to the coronavirus, the economy, and the natural disasters that have marked the past year. Kim, like Biden, would thus benefit from some stability over the next few years. Meanwhile, the North’s relationship with China seems to be on the upswing while Sino-American relations are at a low point, so any action from Pyongyang that is too provocative risks significantly impairing that important relationship as well.
In fact, circumstances suggest that the early months of a Biden administration might be ripe for the first steps of a U.S.-North Korean rapprochement. For all of his shortcomings in North Korean policy, Trump did kick open the door and take some rather boisterous first steps through it. The precedent of direct engagement at the highest levels has thus been established, and although it came much earlier in the negotiating process than was probably warranted, it allows the Biden team to claim to be just picking up the baton where they found it and dive into quiet negotiations immediately. Engagement with the North would also be a step towards placating the demands of the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party that is tired of America’s “forever wars.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked much of his reputation on stabilizing relations with the North, so he is likely to support any such diplomatic effort. And Kim can reasonably claim to have obtained what he needed from the Trump years, as he successfully increased his international and domestic standing through the direct talks; poked holes in the sanctions regime, and bought time for significant advances in the nation’s weapons capabilities that strengthened both its domestic prestige and its international deterrent. Simply put, no one benefits from a return to the hostility of the past.
Biden hardly seems likely to offer a dramatic gesture of reconciliation at the start of his administration. Indeed, under “normal” circumstances, the new president seems likely to respond to any perceived North Korean offense with a return to the same policies of the past. But, there are not normal times. Constraints on both sides abound. Domestic interests are paramount. The international environment is unlike that at any time since the end of World War II. There is a very recent precedent for direct talks, and a South Korean government and a U.S. domestic environment that is in strong support. Biden himself has spoken of a need to end “forever wars” and a desire to redirect American power to meet twenty-first-century challenges like climate change. Under these circumstances, the opportunity for a breakthrough may be at its highest point in decades. How the Biden team responds to a likely North Korean test in early 2021 may be decisive. A calm and reasonable response to what will likely be a fairly mild provocation might just prove to be a significant step on the admittedly difficult path towards progress. A hawkish response likely means a return to the same rigid stalemate that has marked a half-century of difficult U.S.-North Korean relations.
Mitch Lerner is Professor of History and Director of the East Asian Studies Center at The Ohio State University. He is also associate editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations.