The Debate | Opinion

Engagement Is a Virtue, Especially on the Korean Peninsula

The incoming Biden administration has plenty to handle, but it should not forget the Korean Peninsula.

By Song Young Gil for
Engagement Is a Virtue, Especially on the Korean Peninsula
Credit: John Pavelka / Flickr

There was no “October surprise” this election cycle for the U.S. and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) — there wasn’t even one domestically in the United States. Despite what some had hoped, Vice Director Kim Yo Jong — Kim Jong Un’s sister — didn’t travel to D.C. to receive a DVD containing footage of the U.S. Independence Day celebration. During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula remained a low priority as both Republicans and Democrats focused on domestic politics.

So how will North Korea-U.S. relations develop in a long-term perspective?

A vacuum is expected in the first half of 2021, until the appointment of an assistant secretary of state to handle the incoming U.S. administration’s dealings with the Korean Peninsula is completed. North Korea has experienced several U.S. presidential elections, and is aware of this political vacuum. Having learned from previous elections, the DPRK knows that this is the ideal time to try to change the playing field in favor of its nation and increase its worth. That’s why North Korea has given several “gifts” after the U.S. presidential elections over the years.

North Korea tested a rocket engine 75 days after Obama’s second inauguration in early 2013. That experiment marked the beginning of an international crisis that continued over the next few years. Just 23 days after the Trump administration took office, North Korea conducted a solid-fuel ballistic missile test. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was visiting the United States at the time, and Trump heard the news during a dinner with him. Then came the time of “fire and fury.”

If North Korea takes advantage of the coming change in U.S. administration again and gives a “gift,” the nightmare of the past will be recreated. There is a possibility that North Korea will launch a North Star-4 SLBM, unveiled at the recent military parade, from an actual submarine, or it might conduct a ground combustion test of a new ICBM, or might even launch limited range missiles.

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Thus, crisis management from now until the first half of 2021 is more critical than ever.

President-elect Joe Biden has decades of experience in diplomacy, which will give him a flexible approach in foreign affairs. He has been actively engaged with Asian countries through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He noted during the last televised presidential debate that he is willing to meet with Chairman Kim if the DPRK reduces its nuclear capabilities. A flexible approach to the DPRK could yield fruitful outcomes.

However, for the time being, the incoming U.S. administration will put its efforts toward responding to COVID-19 domestically. The U.S. diplomatic agenda will come after, and its top priorities will most likely be a U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal) and U.S.-China relations, rather than U.S. relations with the DPRK. But the Korean Peninsula should not be neglected. Under the toughest-ever sanctions against North Korea, the regime is on the ropes and Kim could be tempted to take military measures, such as SLBM launches.

Actions need to be taken to prevent North Korea’s military provocations and push for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. For example, humanitarian aid, which is exempt from sanctions, could be a good tool to create a positive interaction between the U.S. and the DPRK, leading the DPRK’s regime away from any military measures. 

Pyongyang needs to have dialogue while watching political developments in the U.S., rather than making hasty judgments. So far, a stable status quo has been maintained due to the “special” relationship between Trump and Kim. This would be the basis for Washington to take a flexible approach to Pyongyang. But this situation will change rapidly if negative events occur. 

Stable management of the situation is not easy. Any small variable can reverse the situation. The status quo between the U.S. and North Korea now rests in the most stable condition since the North’s first nuclear test in 2006. This situation should not go to waste. The opportunities for peace, prosperity, and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula are still valid. However, a provocation from the North could cause the current relatively stable relationship to return to the pre-Hanoi summit state, meaning we will waste years of effort again. 

Song Young Gil is chair of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee in the the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.