Updated: Feb 9
With Joe Biden being elected as the President of the United States, the nuances of inter-state relations with North Korea are expected to change thereby influencing world politics dramatically.
Image credits: Vice Media
North Korea has been in the limelight over its rogue actions for a long time now. It has pursued a nuclear weapons program, constructed and exported ballistic missiles, sponsored terrorist acts, allegedly participated in the drug trade and counterfeiting, and posed an unceasing threat to U.S. allies and interests, resulting in the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan.
On the other hand, it has also been the subject of a policy experiment. Both Republican and Democrat administrations have tried to engage Pyongyang in a bid to improve relations and end its intolerable behaviour. This policy, albeit politically controversial, is probably here to stay, not only because of its compelling attraction to a cross-section of mainstream Democrats and Republicans, but also because of the political trends in Northeast Asia (particularly the ongoing reunion between North and South Korea), that reinforce the logic of engagement. Thus, a key question for the new administration is how to go about shaping its diplomatic policy towards North Korea to further the goals of the US state.
As North Korea vividly augmented the pace of technological progress in building its nuclear program in recent years, the Trump administration alternately levelled-out the threats of military action and engaged in high-profile summitry with Kim Jong-un. Undoubtedly, this issue has risen to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The current round of new leadership and diplomatic engagement with North Korea under Biden may hold enormous consequences for the future of the Korean Peninsula, perhaps even leading to the conclusion of this long saga. Or it might simply lead to another round of all sides “muddling through” with no ultimate resolution in sight. The Trump administration previously framed negotiations with North Korea in stark binary terms – either denuclearization and prosperity in North Korea or a more intensified skirmish and conflict, eventually leading up to full scale war. But few experts expect North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal any time soon. The present diplomacy of the U.S towards the regime should be judged by some vital factors, primarily: nuclear armament, economic sanctions and the military & stakeholder bases of the U.S in the Republic of Korea.
The historical roots of the bone of contention between these two polar forces can be traced back to President Reagan’s ‘modest initiative’ in 1988, which allowed unofficial, non-governmental visits by North Koreans to the United States; easing of rigorous financial regulations impeding travel to North Korea by American citizens; permission for limited commercial export of U.S. humanitarian goods to Pyongyang; and permission for U.S. diplomats to engage in substantive discussions with North Koreans in neutral settings.
Pyongyang has been unswerving in outlining what it wants from the United States, though the outlying details have shifted from time-to-time. North Korea has repeatedly called for a peace treaty and normalized relations with Washington, and – above all – an end to what it calls the U.S. “hostile policy”, described as a combination of economic assistance, human right records and the lucidity of deterrence.
Many experts are indeed cynical of the regime’s willingness to disarm. They have substantially argued that North Korea seeks ‘de facto’ recognition of its status and legitimacy as a nuclear-armed state, parallel to other nuclear-armed states outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Over the years, North Korea has expressed its support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but this term may have a very different interpretation in Pyongyang. The “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as a North Korea official described it in 2013, means “totally removing the U.S. nuclear threat to the DPRK,” with eventual North Korean nuclear disarmament coming in the context of global efforts to achieve denuclearization of the world.
Although much of the U.S. media discourse about North Korea portrays the country’s leadership and its pursuit of nuclear arms as bizarre and illogical, the vast majority of specialists see the North Korean regime as rational and prudential in its pursuit of self-preservation. North Korea has long sought to normalize relations with the U.S. in order to guarantee its security and to avoid dependence on China as a benefactor.
In its early years, North Korea’s nuclear program was primarily useful as a bargaining chip for Pyongyang to achieve this objective, but missed opportunities and wrongheaded actions by Washington – particularly the decision to discard the Agreed Framework in 2002 – seem to have convinced North Korea to pursue a more robust nuclear deterrent.
Subsequent U.S. policies based on sanctions and shows of military force have been misguided, deepening Pyongyang’s sense of external threat while triggering North Korea’s proclivity to escalate in response to pressure. However, Kim Jong Un’s apparent commitment to economic development and modernization, paired with his high-level outreach to South Korea, China, and the U.S., may have opened the door for a meaningful new opportunity for negotiations. Nuclear deterrence, combined with a strong tolerance for risk, also provides Pyongyang with the freedom of action to pursue its interests as it sees fit and to interrupt international norms of state behaviour with relative exemption. Kim Jong Un’s pomposity emphasizing “final victory” demonstrates North Korea’s intention to unify the Peninsula under its tutelage, while the country’s development of nuclear-armed missiles would provide it with the means to coerce or defeat a conventionally-armed South Korea and deter a U.S. intervention.
With the victory of Joe Biden as the president of the United States of America, a new set of events take a domino fall. The year 2020 was a sheer disaster for the leader supreme of North Korea, with crippling economy being further decayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of hurtling spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim's nuclear arsenal. While Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons program in recent political speeches, he also tried to give Biden an opening by saying that the fate of their relations depends on whether Washington discards what he calls hostile US policies.
In recent military parades in Pyongyang, Kim showcased new weapons he may test, including solid-fuel ballistic systems designed to be fired from vehicles and submarines, and the North's biggest intercontinental ballistic missile.
A revival of tensions would force the US and South Korea to reckon more deeply with the possibility that Kim may never voluntarily deal away the weapons he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
The North Korean regime is playing a risky game that few other countries would dare. By provoking other states – even superpowers – the regime attracts economic assistance that is needed for its survival. It is able to use this bribing policy rather successfully only because of its geopolitical situation.
Being surrounded by rival great powers and countries that focus on economic growth and stability, none of the states in the region are willing to risk conflict with or chaotic implosion of the North Korean regime. The rogue State’s way of dealing with foreign regimes would not be this successful if the geopolitical situation had been different.
Considering that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world and is still able to manipulate and bully some of the most prosperous countries, one could question whether states with a relatable Gross Domestic Product (like Yemen or Ethiopia) would be allowed the same attitude.
One could assume that because these states lack the geopolitical importance of North Korea, starting provocations like a nuclear armament would soon result in foreign intervention ending the regime once and for all.
Kim Jong and his comrades are well aware of the fact that Pyongyang has an unmatched geopolitical advantage and they perfectly manipulate this reality. As long as the regime respects some limits, it can continue to provoke other powers, and use tension-seeking behaviour to force concessions – especially economic aid like food and energy assistance. As long as the regime respects the minimum of stability desired by the states involved, it is more or less allowed to provoke now and then.
Nevertheless, although no states involved desire sudden regime change in Pyongyang, there is a broad support for gradual regime change. The shared hope is that the North Korean rulers in the end will understand that their policies are not viable in the long term, and that they could gain by initiating some economic reforms that other regimes like China or Vietnam managed in the past. This hope, however, has been slumbering for at least ten years already and the first cautious experiments in North Korea have all been ended shortly after their start.
No signs are available at this moment that anything will change in North Korea, not even gradually even in the new political arena.
By Nirmanyu Chouhan
Nirmanyu is a History honours student from Hindu college, pushing and exploring his interests in the numerous aspects of global and national political arena, also driven towards the study of regional socio-political affairs. He is more towards research and development of a particular issue and active journaling.