North Korea has greeted the last two U.S. presidents with tests of missiles or nuclear bombs within weeks of taking office. And experts see the same happening with Joe Biden, whom the regime has called “a rabid dog.”
Kim Jong Un is one of the few world leaders who has yet to congratulate – or even acknowledge – the president-elect, particularly after Chinese President Xi Jinping did so on Wednesday. While it’s not unusual for North Korea to stay silent on the results of U.S. elections, Kim held unprecedented meetings with President Donald Trump that broke the mold of relations between the long-time adversaries.
Ties now are poised to revert to the frostier days of the Obama administration, when the U.S. deployed “strategic patience” to avoid rewarding North Korea for provocations – a policy that stayed in place after Kim took power in 2011. For North Korea, it may not make too much of a difference: Under both Barack Obama and Trump, Kim steadily increased his ability to threaten the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons even in the face of ever-tighter sanctions.
“Regardless of the U.S. presidency, the North Korean regime is unlikely to change its behavior or shift its strategy toward the U.S.,” said Soo Kim, a Rand Corp. policy analyst who previously worked at the Central Intelligence Agency. “The nukes are here to stay, Kim will continue to build and extort, and the strategy has proven to work for decades. So why change what works?”
North Korea tested Obama with the launch of a long-range rocket and a nuclear device within months after he took power in 2009. Trump was welcomed to the White House with a series of ballistic missile tests that culminated with the launch in November 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts said could deliver a nuclear warhead to all of the the U.S.
The most likely missile test this time will be another ICBM. This could include a new rocket North Korea rolled out at a military parade in October, which is designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads to the U.S. homeland. The Pentagon said earlier this month that it had successfully intercepted a mock ICBM simulating one developed by North Korea.
“They need to test the new ICBM in order to demonstrate it is credible in the eyes of adversaries, and they will likely do so when they are ready,” said weapons expert Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network. “North Korea only needs their ICBMs to be accurate enough to deter the United States.”
North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as insurance against a U.S. attack, and has vowed to maintain its deterrent no matter what. Kim has repeatedly rejected the Trump administration’s call for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantlement before Pyongyang can receive any rewards.
Biden’s camp has signaled more room for negotiations, saying in a policy paper that he wants to “jump start” a campaign with U.S. allies and others for denuclearization. At the second presidential debate in October, Biden called Kim a “thug” but said he could meet the North Korean leader if he made moves to reduce his nuclear arsenal.
Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has called Trump’s personal diplomacy a failure and advocated for a multilateral approach that seeks disarmament in stages. In a 2017 opinion piece in the New York Times, Blinken backed a negotiated settlement with North Korea “that first freezes and then rolls back North Korea’s nuclear program, with inspectors to carefully scrutinize compliance” before a more comprehensive deal is reached.
Kim is likely to give clues on how he’ll approach the new Biden administration during an annual New Year’s address – one of the biggest political speeches on the country’s political calendar. North Korea is also expected to hold a rare ruling party congress at around the time of Biden’s inauguration to lay out a new five year plan for its economy, which is headed for its biggest contraction in more than two decades due to sanctions, the coronavirus and a series of natural disasters.
Pyongyang has made clear that it prefers dealing with Trump, who gave Kim a seat at the table as an equal. His regime has extolled the “mysteriously wonderful” chemistry between the two leaders, while denouncing Biden as an “imbecile bereft of the elementary quality as a human being.”
And as Biden seeks to work with allies following Trump’s “America First” approach, Kim may also find that he has more friends now than he did a few years ago. He enjoys much better relations with China and Russia, who joined with the the U.S. in 2017 to support unprecedented United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea in response to its nuclear and missile tests.
“This time around, new tests may not have the same effect at the UN,” said Ankit Panda, a Stanton senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, adding that tensions could escalate quickly if Biden responds with a show of military might. “The greatest risk would be that we reenter a crisis cycle with North Korea.”
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