With President-elect Joe Biden’s first term in the Oval Office coming up, President Donald Trump’s last term is coming to a close, and with it the expectation of some practical improvement in nuclear weapons negotiations with North Korea.
Trump’s persona and distinct instability as a leader offered what analysts call an “opportunity” to apply the maximum pressure approach towards North Korean denuclearization.
His attempt at wooing Kim Jong Un through the Singapore and Hanoi Summits tragically failed, instead acting as the starting point of heightened tensions between the two. The summits did little at all in terms of arms control, and North Korean provocations against South Korea continued without fail throughout the Trump presidency.
Loopholes in the Trumpian application of US sanctions – for example, the failure to block North Korea’s foreign money procurement or to take full advantage of its financial vulnerability – as well as inconsistencies with policies vis-à-vis South Korea, effectively led to America’s failure.
WHAT AMERICA NEEDS
Joe Biden on the other hand, should offer the stability in a leader that the US needs, and a window for a much-needed realignment of strategies and mutual goals. But his plate is currently piled to the top with a list of prerequisites to any sort of political leverage against North Korea.
As he appoints people to new positions in his administration, Biden has pledged to focus on domestic issues like salvaging America’s COVID-19 response, tackling the effects of climate change, and dealing with current racial inequalities.
Abroad, Biden is first tasked with re-entering and negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with Iran, and rethinking and reshaping its relationship with a more aggressive China before finally turning towards Japan and South Korea.
Working-level talks comparable to those of 2015, when the JCPOA deal was signed by the Obama administration, are attainable, and Iran could make promise-keeping concessions if Biden lessens sanctions despite tensions once again heightened by the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
The same cannot be said of North Korea, given its track record of rolling back on concessions and conducting frequent provocations against its southern neighbor.
SEOUL AND PYONGYANG’S WISHES
Even though Biden is likely to be more receptive of Seoul’s economic cooperation approach via Pyongyang, the two are even more likely to clash over North Korea’s human rights abuses, complacency in Seoul, and the Moon administration’s plan to build nuclear-power attack submarines.
President Moon Jae In’s term will come to a close in 2022, meaning it is unlikely the leaders can rematch US-South Korean foreign affairs policies towards North Korea in the time left.
Kim Jong Un’s disinterest in dialogue continues as he focuses on domestic tragedies from the past year with disruptions to cross-border activity, price increases, food shortages, and deaths from the novel coronavirus and devastating typhoons.
Although having recently admitted to the economic failures of his most recent Five-year National Economic Development Strategy, without any serious international intervention North Korea could just continue to make use of money laundering schemes through Chinese bank accounts and sanctions-violating military equipment and iron ore sales.
Kim Jong Un has not commented on Joe Biden’s “thug” comment and has yet to make a statement on his presidential victory – although this may come during or after Kim’s announcement of the country’s new five-year plan for national development in January.
A NEW LEADER
Biden could use North Korea’s waiting game to his advantage by setting the tone as a predictable leader, but as far as foreign policy goes, the president-elect simply now has more immediate and pressing issues than the threat of nuclear war with North Korea.
America’s culmination of internal obstacles and disagreements with its allies should be bettered at least to some degree if there is any chance of resolving the impasse on arms control, let alone negotiating denuclearization.
Without these premier improvements, any future dialogue is likely to meet the same fate as the Trump-Kim summits, whereas an end of war declaration could remain completely intangible.
Sabrine Donohoe is a freelance writer and currently studying for an MA in Global Affairs and Policy at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.
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