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Foreign Policy

Room for a Breakthrough with DPRK

Dec 18, 2020
  • Wang Fudong

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations

After Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, it was widely predicted that he would reverse and revise many of the Trump administration’s unconventional domestic and foreign policies. The DPRK nuclear issue is one of those that needs an adjustment.

Currently, pessimists hold that the importance of the DPRK nuclear issue has declined significantly for the Biden administration, and that Biden will return to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy, which is not good for resolving matters.

Even the DPRK seems to agree. To date, the DPRK media have been slow to report Biden’s election, whereas they have usually reported the U.S. election results within 10 days.

However, if we examine the current situation, and the interests and policy considerations of all parties involved, we can still find favorable factors for progress and should remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

First, the time and space environment of the nuclear issue has changed qualitatively from the Obama era. That administration had long pursued the “strategic patience” option, refusing to engage in dialogue with the DPRK in the hope that sanctions would cause it to collapse.

In the Republic of Korea at the time, President Park Geun-hye referred to unification as a “jackpot,” wishfully invoking the gambling term to describe the sudden collapse of the DPRK regime based on the assumption that a young Kim Jong-un had just come to power and that the DPRK regime was full of uncertainty. This view underestimated the regime’s viability, ability to develop nuclear missiles and strategic resolve.

In fact, since coming to power, Kim Jong-un has not only consolidated his rule but also taken steps toward economic and nuclear missile development. It was the Obama administration’s passive and dilatory approach, which repeatedly missed North Korea's calls for negotiations, that allowed the Kim to develop missiles with impunity.

Since 2018, the DPRK's relations with its traditional friends, including China and Russia, have become stronger, and it now has a solid strategic backing. The DPRK’s increased nuclear missile capability has increasingly weakened the U.S. desire to use force.

Continued strategic patience and one-dimensional attempts to force the DPRK to yield through sanctions will only result in more nuclear weapons and capabilities, posing an even greater threat to the security of the United States and its allies. Therefore, it is in the U.S. interest to negotiate and engage with the DPRK. There is no longer any room for long-term patience on the nuclear issue.

Second, the Biden administration will be more pragmatic than Trump on the nuclear issue, which is conducive to progress on the issue. Trump’s improvisational, unconventional style of diplomacy has achieved a historic breakthrough in U.S.-DPRK relations, but there are obvious shortcomings.

The DPRK nuclear issue has been accumulating for a long time and is highly complex. The Trump administration, underestimating this complexity, has been too ambitious and too ready to put on a show. It has been unable to build a detailed policy team on the issue for a long time and has been unable to develop a comprehensive and integrated program for resolving it. After the Hanoi summit in 2019, U.S. policy toward the DPRK morphed into a new kind of strategic patience similar to that of Obama.

 Biden will be more principled in his policy toward the DPRK, but he will also be more pragmatic. Since the U.S. and the DPRK have already established a high-level communication mechanism through the Singapore summit, Biden’s advocacy of bottom-up substantive talks indicates this may become the primary means of communication in the near term.

Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was involved in the development of the Iran nuclear deal, which involved a large number of technical and specific policy details, as well as a large number of arms control and diplomatic experts. This experience will help the U.S. and the DPRK find common ground in negotiations and gradually achieve a practical outcome.

Third, Biden’s emphasis on multilateral cooperation with China and allies is the key to resolving the nuclear issue, which is of multilateral geopolitical concern and  cannot be resolved solely by the United States and the DPRK. Denuclearization is in the common interest of both China and the U.S., so the DPRK nuclear issue could be a highlight of cooperation.

The Trump administration has adopted a bilateral approach to resolving the issue, while also suppressing China on all fronts, which has stalled previous U.S.-China cooperation on the Korean peninsula. Biden has publicly emphasized the need to promote a resolution of the issue through multilateral cooperation with China and the ROK, which is conducive to international cooperation and to more comprehensive talks between the U.S. and the DPRK.

Finally, the DPRK’s current difficult situation influences its willingness to seek an easing of external sanctions by engaging in nuclear negotiations. This presents another opportunity for negotiations. This year, the DPRK has been hit by a triple whammy of sanctions, a pandemic and natural disasters, and it is suffering exceptional economic hardship.

Recently, the National Intelligence Service of the ROK said during parliamentary questioning that the DPRK’s economic data on foreign trade, agricultural and industrial production, foreign exchange holdings and many other areas reveal a situation close to that of the hard march of the 1990s. Therefore, the potential benefits of a further nuclear missile test are small, while the risks are high. Under questioning, the intelligence service also noted that the DPRK had recently instructed its overseas embassy and consulate personnel not to provoke the United States, reflecting hopeful expectations for the new U.S. administration.

In summary, there are still room for a breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear issue. Of course, this does not mean that the issue will be resolved easily. All parties should work to create opportunities for nuclear negotiations — especially China, Russia, and the Republic of Korea — and actively promote the resumption of U.S.-DPRK dialogue. They should also propose more creative approaches to peace and denuclearization.

In the end, the U.S. and DPRK must realize that continuing negotiations is a win-win scenario that’s in the best interests of all parties, and that allowing the nuclear issue to drift will only lead to a bigger crisis.

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