Joe Biden Faces the North Korean Problem

The foreign policy regarding North Korea, a country that continues developing its nuclear capabilities, is one of the greatest challenges that the new president of the United States will have to face.

One of the biggest challenges for Joe Biden’s foreign policy will be North Korea. The new president has hinted that there will be a thorough revision of Donald Trump’s approach to this delicate matter.

Biden has heavily criticized Trump’s personalistic, unilateralist and concessive style when dealing with young dictator Kim Jong Un. The Democratic leader has already stated that, as opposed to his predecessor, he will only meet with Kim if he reduces the size of his nuclear arsenal, and that there will be no concessions. Furthermore, the United States would reinforce economic sanctions against North Korea, while at the same time prioritizing reestablishing dialogue with South Korea and Japan. Although it was not explicitly stated, it is thought that Biden will also try to work with China to some degree, something that, a priori, seems inevitable.

A good indicator of Biden’s new approach regarding North Korea was the appointment in the State Department of Jung Pak, an experienced Korean American scholar and intelligence officer, to lead the task force charged with giving advice on relations with Pyongyang. Pak advocates for the complete nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula and has harshly criticized the pompous and pointless Trump-Kim summits.

In her recent book, Biden’s new adviser argues that Kim is a rational actor that does not want war with the United States, but he is also unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons, since they are part of his regime’s identity. Neither will Kim accept nuclear disarmament in exchange for economic benefits provided by the United States, as Trump speculated, because doing so would be seen as an unacceptable act of betrayal toward his predecessors. Pak claims that Kim does want economic prosperity, but on his own terms, imposing conditions as an equal to the United States. As she sees it, ignoring these facts was the big mistake in Trump and his strategists’ calculations.

Perhaps as part of Trump’s legacy regarding North Korea, Pak claims, Kim seems bolder when dealing with the United States. From the triumphalist North Korean point of view, the “great leader” has forced the United States to go from an all-out pressure stance to a more flexible one, with unprecedented concessions, such as the suspension of military training exercises with South Korea. Biden seems to be decided on going back on these decisions and returning to the path of hard sanctions. Moreover, Biden knows that there is no chance of going back to Barack Obama’s strategic patience.

Another change driven by Biden would be the reinstatement of the position of special envoy on North Korean Human Rights, trying to highlight the regime’s abuses to create international awareness, which would further pressure Kim’s regime. An example of this type of strategy could be the American embassies’ campaigns in the media against the situation of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China.

Paradoxically, however, there are important interests shared by the United States and China regarding the stability and nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula. Xi Jinping’s decisive role in containing Kim is undeniable. At the same time, China continues to be one of the most important supports preventing the economic collapse of North Korea, the other big one being Russia, which also plays an important role and makes the United States even more uncomfortable. Biden is well aware that an eventual unification of both Koreas under a pro-Western regime would be a big red flag for China and Russia.

Some estimates from intelligence agencies claim that North Korea’s commerce, already severely affected by all the sanctions, shrank by 80% in 2020. To remedy the situation, Kim resorted to the only trick he knows: greater state pressure on the economy and fierce repression of opposing voices. Furthermore, the most alarming part: nuclear missile testing did not stop during 2020.

Biden inherited a ticking time bomb; one that no one in the region wants to explode. Time will tell if America’s new strategy is viable. The situation is dire, especially if we take into account the complexity of the matter and those involved.

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