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N Korea at crossroads

Post-Trump, North Korea set to return to brinkmanship

Missile testing among possible provocations during US transition to Biden

Kim Jong Un speaks at a meeting of the politburo of the Workers' Party of Korea in this image released by North Korea's Central News Agency.   © Reuters

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- U.S. negotiations to denuclearize North Korea will return to square one with President-elect Joe Biden set to succeed Donald Trump, putting Pyongyang on a path to resume missile testing or other provocations.

With Biden's inauguration 10 weeks away, the outlines of his administration's North Korea policy will take several months to be revealed. North Korea may seek to exploit this vacuum to ratchet up tensions and draw the new president's attention, according to Pyongyang watchers and South Korean authorities.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a joint statement issued at their historic Singapore summit in June 2018. Though working-level negotiations have not been held since October 2019, the two leaders remain in contact.

Biden has been cautious toward dialogue with Pyongyang. The Democrat called Kim a "thug" during a presidential debate before last week's election. And with Trump meeting Kim three times, "he's legitimized North Korea," Biden said.

In assessing bilateral relations, attention will turn to whether the Biden administration continues on the path of the Singapore statement. Former President Barack Obama's administration, following a policy of "strategic patience," essentially ignored North Korea. Biden may shift course and intensify pressure on the isolated country.

North Korea has taken aim at Biden in the past. In a commentary last November, state-run KCNA called him a "rabid dog" who is greedy for power and showing signs of the "final stage of dementia."

Since the failed February 2019 summit in Hanoi, North Korea has sought unilateral concessions from Washington. Kim, unable to strike a deal on lifting sanctions, shifted focus toward reinforcing his grip on power and improving missile technology.

North Korea debuted a new intercontinental ballistic missile at a military parade in October. South Korean intelligence reports that Pyongyang also is building two submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles.

As of Monday local time, North Korean state media had not reported on the results of the U.S. presidential election. South Korea's defense ministry noted no indications of unusual movement in North Korea.

Should Biden emphasize coordination with alliance partners, stronger security ties among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea are likely to be restored. Washington has suspended large military exercises in South Korea since 2018, and three-way drills also have been put on hold.

Seoul has grappled with Trump's demands that South Korea assume a large share of the cost for the American troop presence there. Though talks on burden-sharing for 2020 bogged down, conservative media in the country have signaled optimism toward a resolution.

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