Kim Jong Un’s remarks at the Eighth Party Congress referring to the US as North Korea’s “biggest enemy” can be seen as both a declaration of war and a watershed moment marking the start of a dividing line. In my last column, I evaluated Kim’s remarks as a response to China and bait for South Korea. It was a sign that Kim wants to establish a trilateral front with a clear anti-US stance in Northeast Asia composed of South Korea, North Korea and China. Moon already laid the groundwork for a Northeast Asian security alliance that includes China in his address to the UN General Assembly on Sep. 22 of last year, when he made suggestions for a Northeast Asian cooperation initiative for pandemic prevention and public health as part of efforts against COVID-19. Kim’s latest remarks brought the three countries together, and with that, so begins the honeymoon phase of the Sino-Korean relationship (the relationship between South Korea, North Korea and China). How will the Biden administration respond?
The Biden administration’s response: Multilateralism to solve the North Korea nuclear problem
The new Biden administration is likely to respond by pushing for multilateral cooperation in the international community. The US has already announced its intentions to form a multilateral council and host a global summit for democracy by the end of the year. As it is a meeting reserved for the world’s democracies, China and North Korea are naturally excluded. South Korea is, however, on the list of invitees to the meeting, which will bring together the leaders of countries that share democratic values and norms. The time before and after the summit will reveal the outlines of the so-called ‘New Cold War” with the US and China (on opposing sides). The key question is, what side will Korea be on? It is clear that the US will never condone South Korea joining hands with China. When Moon called then-President-elect Biden on Nov. 12 last year to congratulate him on his election victory, Biden responded by referring to South Korea as the linchpin for the Indo-Pacific region. He essentially reiterated the importance of the US-ROK alliance.
Biden’s comments were simultaneously a strong signal for the Moon administration to join the “Quad”, a multilateral security alliance comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia. As we have seen, the Moon government is more inclined toward Northeast Asian security cooperation than joining the so-called “Quad,” which has created a stumbling block for US policy in the region. Nonetheless, the US has probably fully anticipated this possibility and prepared a contingency plan. This plan is likely to center around a US-led multilateral alliance system. In other words, there is a high probability that (South Korea) will not necessarily have to choose between the “Quad” and a Northeast Asian security alliance, but rather be able to find a consensus between the two. This is likely to start with the most pressing issue, which is that of North Korean nuclear proliferation. In this case, (discussions on) the North Korean question will involve Japan, India, Australia and other countries that were involved in the Six-Party talks.
This kind of multilateral approach is all the more highlighted by the key foreign policy chiefs of the new administration, starting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Blinken’s approach to the North Korean nuclear issue is likely to be modelled after the Iran Nuclear Deal. The Iran Nuclear Deal is a particular point of pride for Blinken, as he directly contributed to the modelling of the agreement as the national security advisor for the Obama administration. Blinken emphasized the Iran agreement as a solution to the North Korean issue in 2018. The agreement was reached between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), thus constituting a multilateral agreement between seven countries including the US, Iran, the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia. In other words, applying the Iran model to the North Korean situation entails the formation of a multilateral council beyond the frameworks of the Four-Party and Six-Party talks. It will take on a different character to the Six-Party Talks led by China in the past. Instead, the US will view this kind of alliance as its move to weaken the close relationship between the two Koreas and China.
The problem is that a direct application of the Iran Nuclear Agreement model would start with freezing the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The main focus of the Iran agreement was the lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for accepting the nuclear freeze order and allowing for inspections of nuclear facilities. Taking into consideration that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was at an incomplete stage at the time, (the agreement model) is likely inapplicable to the North Korean context.
The Iran nuclear agreement had a singular focus on freezing nuclear weapons, which included loopholes that allowed Iran to develop ballistic missiles. The former Trump administration’s main reason for withdrawing from the agreement was to curb Iran’s ballistic missile development. There is a significant difference in the level of nuclear capabilities and long-range ballistic missile technology between Iran at the time and North Korea now. North Korea already has the means to launch a missile that can reach the US mainland and its nuclear capability is at a stage of completion. As such, even if the Biden administration were to follow the Iran model, the conditions of the agreement would need to be applicable to the current North Korean situation. In other words, the conditions would not entail a freeze on nuclear weapons, but rather include stipulations to dismantle, contain and transfer (North Korea’s) intercontinental ballistic missile technology.
The key to applying the Iran model to North Korea is to move away from the format of bilateral talks between the US and North Korea, rather moving the dialogue to a multilateral level. Moreover, an approach that focuses on negotiations between working level officials (track 2 diplomacy, or bottom-up) rather than between government officials or heads of state (track 1 diplomacy, or top-down). In this regard, the appointment of former US ambassador to South Korea, Sung Kim, as acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs is noteworthy. The assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, which includes the Korean Peninsula, China and Japan, is the highest ranking position in the Department of State concerning the region. Biden appointed Sung Kim to this position following Kim Jong Un’s strong message to the US (at the Eighth Party Congress).
Sung Kim was the chief special envoy of the US to the Six-Party Talks in 2008, attended the demolition site of the Yongbyon nuclear facility’s cooling tower in 2008 and negotiated with North Korea as a working-level representative at the first summit between Trump and Kim in 2018. Both before and after the summit, he participated in several meetings between North Korea’s diplomatic delegation in Panmunjom and Singapore. Furthermore, as someone who joined former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang on his visit to North Korea, he has been more involved in North Korea-related affairs than any other US government official, and is known within the US as an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program.
His appointment (to assistant secretary of state) may be regarded as both a positive assessment of his previous policy toward North Korea and a signal for future policy development. Hints toward the direction of his North Korean policy can be parsed from past behavior in negotiations (with his North Korean counterparts). When Mike Pompeo visited North Korea during the Trump administration, Pompeo demanded the declaration of nuclear facilities as the first step to denuclearization. This idea may have originated from Sung Kim, who already witnessed the demolition of the Yongbyon cooling tower. The so-called “Yongbyon Plus Alpha” (denuclearization) measures may have also come from Kim.
As such, it is possible for the Biden administration to view nuclear reporting as the key to solving the North Korean nuclear issue. Demanding that North Korea report its nuclear facilities will mean that using tricks to cheat and show off will no longer resonate as it did in the past, at least not in the face of such solid experience with such things in past years. At the very least, Sung Kim will not be misled by North Korea’s vague intentions for denuclearization. Kim’s past remarks are very different from the expectations for “simultaneous denuclearization and easing of sanctions” put forth by the Chinese and South Korean governments.
In 2015, Kim (then-special representative for North Korea policy) called for the use of all available means including deterrence and diplomatic pressure to make it clear to North Korea that they cannot achieve security and prosperity while pursuing nuclear weapons. As a result, he will be a clear thorn in the side for North and South Korea (a presence that will disrupt/make the inter-Korean relationship uncomfortable). As such, the Biden administration responded strongly to North Korea’s harsh remarks, at the same time as Moon reaffirmed “Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearization” in his New Year Press Conference on Jan. 18.
American actively conducts crisis management for the US-ROK alliance
In response to Kim Jong Un’s calls for suspending the US-South Korean joint military exercises at the Eighth Party Congress, President Moon mentioned in his New Year press conference that he would consider discussing the issues regarding the resumption of the upcoming US-South Korea joint military exercises in March with North Korea “if necessary.” American experts referred to these statements as “highly inappropriate.” Moon’s narrowing of the distance in the inter-Korean relationship is viewed as South Korea distancing itself from the US. The cracks in the longstanding US-South Korean alliance has reached a level where it runs the risk of being discarded entirely. South Korea’s courtship with the North has gone too far and reached the extent where they find themselves at opposite ends with the US. Moon’s remarks that he will consider discussing the suspension of the joint military exercises marks the peak of South Korea’s divergence from the US.
This is not only a matter of courting North Korea in order to open up channels of dialogue. Rather, it represents an act of abandoning and humiliating an alliance partner. Nonetheless, the Biden administration shows few signs of agitation. Secretary of State Blinken stated at his hearing that they “will start by consulting with our allies and partners, South Korea in particular, and reviewing all recommendations.” It is a sign that the US will not let go of South Korea, despite that country’s rejection. Lee In Young, the South Korean unification minister, also hurriedly corrected Moon’s remark by stating that North Korea should also be flexible in its view of the South Korea-US joint military exercises.
According to diplomatic sources on Jan. 25, Blinken intends to meet with the current South Korean nominee for foreign minister, Chung Eui Yong, soon after Chung is confirmed, a meeting that will clearly set the relationship between the US and South Korea. Chung is expected to take a similar stance to Unification Minister Lee, who took a step back from Moon’s remarks on the joint exercises. However, he may also act as a spokesperson for North Korea’s position as he has previously conveyed Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearization to the US in the past. He may once again attempt to persuade the US by conveying similar remarks as he did during the time of the Trump administration.
However, the Biden administration will not be as easily persuaded by North Korea’s words of seduction as the Moon government. Biden will also draw a clear line against South Korea on the matter of furthering the Singapore Agreement, whereas the Moon administration has argued for its continued implementation. Biden has a strong stance on the Singapore Agreement, which he criticized in no uncertain terms as a “vague promise” and “the sign of a weakening alliance.” At the time of the agreement, Biden referred to the vague wording of the Singapore Agreement, which mentioned the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula rather than that of North Korea, and also pointed out the wrongheadedness of unconditionally suspending joint military exercises. Biden expressed his grave concern on both of these two points at the time, and refused to recognize the agreement as a deal between the two leaders.
In this regard, Blinken is also expected to express deep regret over Moon’s remarks that suggested South Korea will discuss suspending joint military exercises with North Korea. Nor will he turn a blind eye to South Korea’s move toward China. Perhaps the strategy will take the form of a blockade, or he might take stronger measures in the form of more sanctions. The methods are varied, and the US will be seeking tangible results. This has the potential to cause adverse effects, not only in terms of diplomacy and security, but also for the economy. It is a boomerang that has backfired on the Moon administration, which has lost its sense of reality. The measures of the new US government may be even more severe than the Trump administration. While the Moon administration dreams of romance with North Korea and China, it may very well end up as a scandalous affair.
*Translated by Vilde Olaussen