“We’re waiting to see if Pyongyang actually wants to engage. The ball is in their court.”: In a recent interview with ABC following the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed the call for North Korea to return to the negotiating table.
Significantly, the South Korea-U.S. summit held in Washington, D.C. last week has created momentum for talks between Washington and Pyongyang, which have been stalled since 2019. Consultations with South Korea convinced the United States to keep the North Korean issue as a top priority and to signal Washington’s willingness to resume negotiations if Pyongyang is amenable. Biden reiterated that while the U.S. stood by the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, it would engage with North Korea diplomatically to take “pragmatic steps” toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Biden also used the occasion of the summit to announce the appointment of Sung Kim as the U.S. special envoy to North Korea – an unexpected turn of events and rather dramatic change of position for Washington, since the Biden administration had originally intended to keep the position vacant for a time.
What remains to be seen is how Pyongyang will respond to this overture. From North Korea’s perspective, the South Korea-U.S. summit has sent both positive and negative signals. For instance, Washington’s phased and flexible approach could improve the economic situation in North Korea since if the North takes steps to reduce its nuclear threat, then it can receive compensation, including partial sanctions relief. The joint statement following the summit emphasized human rights issues, but with a focus on humanitarian aid. North Korea should also be pleased to see it is considered one of the Biden administration’s policy priorities. On the other hand, the strengthening of U.S. extended deterrence, increased military cooperation, and termination of the South Korea-U.S. Missile Guidelines will put strong pressure on Pyongyang. North Korea will also not be pleased by the call for “the full implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions by the international community.”
As Blinken notes, the ball is now in North Korea’s court. Receiving these mixed signals from the U.S. and South Korea, Pyongyang’s internal dynamics and strategic calculations will be key variables affecting Kim Jong Un’s decision making. Therefore, it is important to consider the various ways in which Pyongyang might respond to these conditions. We predict that the North Korean regime’s response is likely to conform to one of three scenarios, depending on whether Pyongyang accepts Washington’s overtures as well as on Kim’s attitude toward the Biden administration.
Cooperative Engagement: Low Probability
The most desirable outcome for Washington and Seoul involves North Korean acceptance of the United States’ overtures and cooperative engagement in negotiations. However, such a scenario appears unlikely in the short term for at least three reasons. First, North Korea’s current strategic priorities appear to lie in strengthening its deterrence capabilities rather than negotiations, as stated at the Eighth Korean Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021. Thus, North Korea will probably not return to the negotiating table unless it successfully integrates its conventional and nuclear capabilities based on the completed development of tactical, short-range nuclear weapons, which Kim Jong Un identified as a military priority. Strategically, Pyongyang considers such weapons an effective insurance policy because they would enable North Korea to maintain a military balance against the South Korea-U.S. alliance even if Pyongyang agrees to trade away its strategic nuclear weapons.
Further, Kim has declared his intention to overcome North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation through engaging in another “Arduous March,” reflecting the regime’s “life-and-death” resolution to pursue self-reliance and follow through on the plan set out during the Eighth Congress. Thus, Kim seems unlikely to abandon this strategic vision in the near future. Moreover, Pyongyang has undermined the potency of the international sanctions regime by identifying alternative means of sourcing goods and funding its nuclear program. A recent United Nations report found that North Korea has evaded sanctions through maritime smuggling, cybercrime, overseas labor, and alleged military cooperation, among other illicit operations. All these loopholes serve to reduce North Korea’s incentives to return to the negotiating table.
Rejecting Offers and Resuming Strategic Provocations: Moderate Probability
The worst scenario for Washington and Seoul involves Pyongyang rejecting the U.S. offer of dialogue and opting to upgrade its strategic nuclear weapons. In such a scenario, North Korea may choose to engage in high-intensity provocations, including nuclear warhead tests and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
However, North Korea is currently experiencing severe economic difficulties – a fact that Kim himself has publicly admitted – due to a combination of international sanctions, the self-imposed lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and natural disasters. Thus, it is questionable whether the country could cope with the imposition of additional, harsher sanctions following intense nuclear provocations. In addition, Kim recently launched a large-scale construction project in Pyongyang as a means of mitigating the country’s dire economic situation. Any additional sanctions and containment measures would represent a major challenge to Kim’s recent efforts to boost North Korea’s economy.
Another key consideration for Pyongyang is its relationship with Beijing. In June 2018, shortly after meeting then-U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore, Kim met with Xi Jinping and promised to discuss future denuclearization with China. According to Thae Yong-ho, a South Korean lawmaker and former North Korean diplomat, in return China has provided economic aid, which allowed Pyongyang to withstand international sanctions. If North Korea resumes strategic provocation without consulting China, Pyongyang will be voluntarily giving up political and economic support from Beijing. Therefore, we cannot rule out the case where North Korea chooses this option, but it will depend on China’s position as well as Pyongyang’s expectations of further sanctions from nuclear provocations.
Resuming Dialogue, But Keeping the U.S. at Arm’s Length: High Probability
The third scenario involves North Korea choosing a “middle way,” that is, accepting the U.S. offer of dialogue while keeping the Biden administration at arm’s length. In such a case, despite engaging in denuclearization talks with the United States, North Korea would likely attempt to buy time by dragging its feet and frequently changing the negotiation agenda. Additionally, Pyongyang would probably seek to strengthen its relations with China and Russia.
In the short term at least, North Korea can be expected to choose this option, in no small part because if trade between North Korea and China were to resume after coming to a near standstill during the pandemic, Pyongyang would be under less economic pressure to secure sanctions relief through negotiations with Washington. In the meantime, Pyongyang’s strategic position vis-à-vis the United States would be increased through the further development of its nuclear arsenal. It must also be recognized that the Biden administration remains unable to fully focus on the North Korean problem due to ongoing domestic political, social, and economic issues, as well as other regional concerns such as Taiwan, the South/East China Seas, and the human rights crisis in Xinjiang.
Finally, North Korea’s negotiating tactics so far have adopted a typical approach that leads to the beginning of consultation, raising issues, deepening crisis, and reaching a deal, which is expected to spend considerable time creating conditions for negotiations. Pyongyang may also want to wait to see how the Biden administration addresses the Iranian nuclear issue before recalibrating its own negotiation strategies. For these reasons, we predict that North Korea is most likely to choose this option over others.
The greatest challenge as well as the first step for the Biden administration following the latest South Korea-U.S. summit is to convince North Korea to return to the negotiating table. If Pyongyang were to adopt the wait-and-see strategy we predict, it would not be easily moved unless the U.S. were to offer initial concessions. Considering the fact that Kim Jong Un felt slighted on the international diplomatic stage during his 2019 meeting with Trump in Hanoi, he may need a justification to reverse his position vis-à-vis the United States. Thus, the Biden administration should seriously consider using measures such as humanitarian aid and providing COVID-19 vaccines in order to entice Kim back to the table. At this point, we hope that Biden – together with U.S. allies and partners in East Asia – will tackle the 30-year challenge that is the North Korean nuclear problem in a flexible and creative manner.