North Korea is already testing the incoming Joe Biden administration. Speaking at the first Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in five years, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un said he wants to bolster his military, especially his nuclear arsenal. According to North Korea’s state news, Kim called the United States a “war monster,” and North Korea’s “biggest main enemy.”
This increases the possibility of saber-rattling in the first half of 2021. The Biden team may take a different approach to North Korea than the Trump administration. Instead of off-and-on head of state diplomacy, the incoming administration may take a hardline stance on North Korean denuclearization without working toward some sort of diplomatic détente.
It doesn’t look like playing nice with North Korea is a high priority for team Biden. It’s also worth noting Kim has called Biden a “rabid dog” who “deserves to be beaten.”
Yet taking an absolutist stance on denuclearization without seeking incremental normalization would be a mistake for Biden. Kim’s bellicose remarks are only meant to test the incoming Biden administration and gain attention from Washington.
The status quo of a nuclear North Korea may not be ideal, but it is sustainable. North Korea is already deterred from using nuclear weapons by America’s vast nuclear prowess, which can be delivered via submarine just off of Kim’s coast.
North Korea has tremendous artillery firepower that could do damage to South Korea, but this firepower is offset by South Korea’s better-funded and more technologically advanced military. Even China, which doesn’t want to see its somewhat-ally North Korea enter open war, provides a military check on the hermit kingdom.
Kim is well aware he’s contained. In the same remarks, Kim said he wants better relations with other countries. He said that the “key to establishing DPRK-U.S. relations is in the U.S. lifting its hostile policy [towards Pyongyang].” Kim also vowed not to misuse his nuclear weapons “unless hostile forces try to use nuclear [weapons] targeting us.”
Yes, Kim Jong Un is an evil dictator who presides over the suffering of millions, but these are hardly the ravings of a lunatic or fanatic. Kim Jong Un is ultimately a rational actor, who is largely motivated by fear. As such, asking Kim to completely disarm while tensions remain high is asking the impossible.
Kim views his nuclear weapons as an insurance policy to ensure his safety and the safety of his regime. Right or wrong, Kim looks at the only dictator to ever give up his nuclear designs — Moammar Gadhafi— as a cautionary tale as to why nukes shouldn’t be abandoned.
China’s influence over North Korea is also the elephant in the room. Pyongyang doesn’t necessarily trust Beijing but views Beijing as its only ally. China also has tremendous economic leverage over North Korea.
China is heavily interested in not having an American ally — or a democracy like South Korea — on its border. This allows China to play the spoiler on any sort of military drawdown plan between America and North Korea. To break the China logjam, engagement, better relations, and even some economic ties need to come before Kim even considers some sort of demilitarization.
In the end, asking for denuclearization is a dead-end road. The better way is a path of restraint and recognizing that North Korea is sufficiently deterred. The Biden administration should prioritize short-term normalization over maximalist demands for denuclearization. Here, it is very possible that some demilitarization follows once give-and-take diplomacy takes hold.
It is understandable if Biden doesn’t want to pursue the attention-seeking roadmap of Trump’s approach to North Korea. But it would be a mistake to abandon the Trump administration’s attempt at détente altogether.
Perhaps the Biden administration could start with backchannels to continue to discuss, find, and work toward common goals. A better situation with North Korea, which could also place yet another check on China, could be the crowning achievement of Biden’s foreign policy. There’s no need to let an opportunity go to waste.