TOKYO -- With Joe Biden due to take the oath of office as the 46th president of the U.S. next month, North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, is likely planning his next move. It may take a while to find out what it is, but there are hints he may try to shake things up on the Korean Peninsula.
There are many factors darkening the outlook for relations between Washington and Pyongyang. In an October presidential debate, Biden called Kim a "thug" and criticized President Donald Trump for chumming up with him, thereby legitimizing Kim's rule.
Although the U.S. is certainly not the only country where a political challenger criticizes the incumbent, Biden's remarks were weighty given his election victory. His emphasis on human rights, U.S. allies, and incremental steps toward international agreements does not square well with the priorities of Trump and Kim.
North Korea may be a low priority for Biden, who faces a mountain of domestic problems, including the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, moves are afoot. According to Japanese, U.S. and South Korean diplomatic sources familiar with nuclear issues, Biden aides and foreign policy experts are pushing for a prompt restart of disarmament talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Behind these calls is regret over the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," in which the U.S. essentially turned its back on North Korea, allowing the secretive country to rapidly improve its nuclear and missile technologies.
North Korea is believed to have 20 to 60 nuclear warheads. To carry them, it has developed ballistic missiles with atypical flight paths that are hard to track and intercept. In the second half of 2017, the North repeatedly test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
The U.S. objectives when it comes to North Korea are to prevent the situation on the peninsula from deteriorating further, and to reduce the direct threat to its mainland, say the advocates of a new approach to North Korea.
The North's nuclear weapons program consists of three parts: the warheads it already has, its ongoing nuclear work and its future plans.
The advocates for extending an olive branch to Pyongyang argue the U.S. should ignore the weapons the North already has for now. The new proposal for talks could be cast as a plan to freeze North Korea's nuclear weapons development, something the two sides have discussed in the past.
The Biden administration will pursue a phased denuclearization of North Korea, according to a former high-ranking South Korean official, adding that this chimes with the type of disarmament negotiations that Pyongyang wants.
"We are now capable of inflicting damage on the U.S. capital," a North Korean government official told me after an ICBM test-firing. "North Korea and the U.S. will pull out cards one by one, and continue negotiations on an equal footing as nuclear nations for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the removal of economic sanctions and the establishment of peace," the official said.
"Phased denuclearization" is a weighty option, said Chon Yong-u, a former top South Korean presidential adviser for national security, in an interview with Nikkei in November.
The Biden team's North Korea experts believe it would be difficult to achieve immediate denuclearization of the North, Chon said. "They will likely seek to prevent North Korea from further improving its nuclear development capacity, and then opt for a move to reduce nuclear weapons, starting with those that threaten the U.S. mainland."
Unlike Trump, a businessman-turned-politician who favors big deals, Biden considers himself an expert in diplomacy and tends to go for smaller agreements, according to Chon. This view runs counter to the common belief that the issue of North Korea's nuclear development will reach an impasse under Biden's presidency.
One question is how the international community would respond to the prospect of an incremental deal. China, which backs the North, and Moon Jae-in, South Korea's reformist president who is seeking reconciliation between the two Koreas, are likely to welcome it.
By contrast, a step-by-step approach would alarm the Japanese government and conservatives in South Korea because an interim deal would likely allow North Korea to keep its short- and medium-range missiles, leaving Japan and the South within striking distance.
Another question is what, if anything, will prompt the U.S. and North Korea to resume negotiations. Biden and the North Korean leadership are suspicious of each other. In addition, Pyongyang set a high bar for restarting bilateral talks, demanding the removal of sanctions and an end to joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, among other conditions. After the last denuclearization talks ended in October 2019, North Korea stressed its right to development and existence, going so far as to say it would not return to the negotiating table unless the U.S. ended its hostile policy toward it.
North Korea recently instructed its diplomatic installations around the world not to antagonize the U.S., warning that ambassadors would be held accountable for any trouble, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service.
Despite the fact that it has been a month and a half since Biden won the White House, neither Kim nor the North Korean media has mentioned the results of the U.S. presidential election. While North Korea may not want to stir up trouble as long as Trump remains in office, some experts say Pyongyang is trying to gather bargaining chips ahead of talks with the U.S. before Kim makes any dramatic proposals, such as a freeze on nuclear development, as he tries to grab the new president's attention.
With Kim unlikely to make big moves anytime soon, analysts are trying to determine when he will break his silence. To sound out Biden's position, Pyongyang is expected to call for the incoming U.S. administration to uphold commitments mentioned in the joint statement issued after the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit, including the establishment of bilateral relations and the fostering of mutual trust.
If Biden does not respond favorably, Pyongyang is likely to resort to provocative acts, such as firing ballistic missiles, as soon as it has a suitable pretext.
Test-firings are essential to turn new missiles into operational weapons. Tests could thus help concentrate minds among Biden's aides in restarting negotiations with North Korea.
At a meeting of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party of Korea at the end of 2019, Kim warned that the world would see "a new strategic weapon" from the country in the near future. "The supreme leader delivers on what he says at any price," according to one North Korean official.
Pyongyang may test-fire a big ICBM unveiled during a military parade on Oct. 10, or a submarine-launched ballistic missile from a large submarine now under construction. Another possibility is a military operation near the Northern Limit Line, a maritime demarcation line between the two Koreas, to provoke the South.
If North Korea prioritizes measures to address the prolonged U.N. sanctions, the novel coronavirus and flood damage, it may wait until next March to stage any provocation until after the U.S.-South Korea military drills.
Kim will probably send a message to the U.S. in his speech to the ruling party convention in Pyongyang early next year, offering clues to his next gambit.