The Biden administration describes its North Korea policy as a “calibrated practical approach.” While the meaning of this remains vague, Pyongyang seems to be uninterested in resuming dialogue with Washington. Kim Jong Un stated that North Korea needs to prepare for both “dialogue and confrontation” with the United States – a statement described by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan as an “interesting signal.” However, we should remember that Kim highlighted the need to be “fully prepared for confrontation” to protect the dignity of his country. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jung, also warned, “the US may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself” – a mistake that would “plunge them into a greater disappointment.” North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lee Sun Kwon, has emphasized that his country has no interest in meaningless contact with Washington.
What has made North Korea so rigid and negative over the possibility of restarting nuclear negotiations with the US? First and foremost, Pyongyang has not recovered from the trauma of the Hanoi Summit, which appears to have been hugely disappointing for Kim Jong Un. Seoul’s behaviour, in particular, seems to have frustrated him. It is difficult to know what was driving the thought processes and apparent miscommunication between Kim and Donald Trump, and between Kim and Moon Jae In in February 2019. However, it would be fair to say that Seoul had failed to narrow down the perception gaps between Pyongyang and Washington before Kim and Trump met in Hanoi. Since the no deal, Pyongyang’s message has been crystal clear; it will not consider resuming the stalled nuclear talks until Washington changes its approach.
Though Pyongyang’s unwillingness to resume the dialogue seems to be strong, many would tilt their heads and question North Korea’s strategy. I believe its ultimate goal is to build a new relationship with the US and the rest of the world and North Korea will be patiently waiting for the right timing – an approach I would describe as “strategic patience.”
Of course, this strategy of strategic patience faces internal and external challenges. While the North Korean regime is a brutal authoritarian dictatorship, this does not mean the leadership is free from public anxieties. Economic pressures are a particular worry, with the potential to undermine Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. Food shortages have been a problem for many years, often exacerbated by international sanctions. Added to this, the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and an unstable monetary system have increased the burden. Faced with these difficulties and a national border shut down, it has been tremendously challenging for the North Korean leadership to soothe public sentiment. Nevertheless, it is unlikely the leadership will resume dialogue or approach Seoul or Washington to ask for help unless the latter suggest significant compromises, such as postponing and/or downsizing the joint military exercise scheduled to take place in August, or partially lifting sanctions. While its policy of strategic patience persists, the North Korean leadership will keep emphasizing the role Pyongyang’s particular form of communist ideology plays in consolidating society and in perpetuating ties with China and Russia.
The international circumstances are challenging as well. The pandemic has lasted longer than expected, and US-China rivalry has been becoming more intense and is likely to be more complex and multi-dimensional. The first six months of the Biden administration have revealed the US’ strategic priority is dealing with China. And as Washington and Beijing confront each other, the strategic room for Pyongyang has narrowed, reducing the chance of normalizing US-North Korea relations. Furthermore, Seoul’s attention may be focused on domestic politics for the rest of 2021; its presidential election is scheduled for 9 March 2022, and the campaign is proving to be more heated than any past election. The potential for any North Korea-related issue to be overly politicized and utilized for domestic political purposes makes it difficult to craft a constructive approach. As a result, North Korea is more likely to lean on China, its patron, and bide its time until Seoul’s Presidential election is over.
My suggestions for Seoul and Washington, therefore, can be summarized as follows. First, Seoul should aim to stabilize the current situation. In addition, it should seek deeper dialogue with Washington, Tokyo, and Beijing to narrow down the gaps in their policy approach. Second, Washington should delink its China and North Korea strategies. If US North Korea policies are subsumed by US China policies, it is highly unlikely Washington will be able to make progress on resolving the North Korea nuclear challenge. Furthermore, until the latter is resolved, China will be able to manipulate the situation to its own advantage. Third, after the election next March, Seoul and Washington should meet immediately and try to synchronize an incremental approach. Incrementalism is important because denuclearization cannot be achieved quickly – it will be a long process. Moreover, regardless of their partisanships, it is important that Seoul and Washington respect past efforts and build a strong consensus before they put a new proposal to Pyongyang.
Eunjung Lim is an Associate Professor of the Division of International Studies at Kongju National University (KNU). She also serves as Vice President for International Affairs, Dean of Institute of Institute of Korean Education and Culture, and Dean of Institute of International Language Education at the same university. Her areas of specialization include international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, comparative and global governance, and energy, nuclear, and climate change policies of East Asian countries. She served as a board member of Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control (KINAC), and currently serves as a board member of the Korean Association of International Studies and a member of Policy Advisory Committee for Ministry of Unification.
Before joining the KNU faculty, Dr. Lim worked as an Assistant Professor at College of International Studies, Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto, Japan. She also taught at several universities in the United States and Korea, including Johns Hopkins University, Yonsei University, and Korea University. She has been a researcher and a visiting fellow at academic institutes including the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies at Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the University of Tokyo, the Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul National University, the Institute of Japan Studies at Kookmin University, and Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. She earned a B.A. from the University of Tokyo, an M.I.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Image: APLN/Pixabay stock, Jeremy Zhu.