The Great Reset

Pyongyang stays mum, while Seoul is set to play bigger role as middleman

Experts said Pyongyang's reaction could be a signal of its solidarity with President Donald Trump, whom North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met three times.
Experts said Pyongyang's reaction could be a signal of its solidarity with President Donald Trump, whom North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met three times.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - The silence is deafening in Pyongyang after Mr Joe Biden's victory in the United States presidential election.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, as political watchers are already speculating about a shift in US policy towards North Korea - towards tighter sanctions and less personal diplomacy.

Experts say Pyongyang's reaction could be a signal of its solidarity with President Donald Trump, whom North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met three times since 2018, or perhaps indicates the regime's preoccupation with the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is clear, however, is that it will be carefully watching the leadership transition in Washington and recalibrating its position in dealing with its biggest "enemy".

Whatever a Biden administration pursues, Pyongyang's bottom line remains unchanged - sanctions relief, economic aid and cancellation of joint military exercises with South Korea.

On top of this, it wants to keep its arsenal of nuclear warheads and missiles intact.

Some observers say North Korea may fire a missile some time around Mr Biden's inauguration to test waters, but others feel the regime may not make any move in the next few months.

Mr Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South and is now a member of the National Assembly in Seoul, believes Pyongyang is sending two messages with its current stance.

"First of all, the most important thing for Kim Jong Un now is not to protect North Korea from external military threats, but to protect it from the coronavirus invasion, so if the US does not touch him first, he will remain quiet during Biden's policy review period," said Mr Tae.

"Next, North Korea wants to convey the message that sanctions policies such as Obama's 'strategic patience' will not be effective in the future, given its own self-containment policy."

'Thug' and 'rabid dog

One can only make an educated guess of how the "thug", as Mr Biden has called Mr Kim, and "rabid dog", as North Korean media labelled Mr Biden, may interact.

Dr Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank noted that Mr Biden has "consistently stuck to the view that a summit with Kim would only be possible if certain conditions were met", and that his "apparent scepticism towards a summit... stems fundamentally from his view of Kim as a 'dictator', 'tyrant', 'butcher' and 'thug'."

This means a Biden administration will "likely rely on pressure and even stronger sanctions" against the North Koreans, said Dr Cheong.

Mr Kim has kept mum for now but Mr Tae said North Korea has been "analysing Biden for a very long time".

The US President-elect's previous experience in negotiating for arms reduction with the former Soviet Union means that he would be interested in such discussions with North Korea too, said the former North Korean diplomat.

He added that Pyongyang's interest in arms reduction negotiations, as opposed to abandoning all of its nuclear weapons, was apparent from a statement on July 10 by Mr Kim's sister Yo Jong, who is now widely regarded as a powerful figure in the North Korean hierarchy, perhaps second only to her brother.

She said "it would be easier and more favourable for the US to rack its brains to make our nukes no threat to them, rather than for us to dispose of our nukes".

The nuclear threat

North Korea's nuclear threat appears to have diminished this year, compared with 2016 when then newly elected Mr Trump heard from his predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, that it could be the most pressing danger he would face in his presidency.

Pyongyang had by then conducted two nuclear tests and fired 24 missiles, and these were followed up with its first test of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 2017.

After three Trump-Kim summits, numerous "love letters" between them, as Mr Trump trumpeted, and one agreement to "work towards complete denuclearisation", North Korea has rescinded on ICBM tests, firing only nine short-range missiles so far this year.

Experts estimate that the regime now has more than 60 nuclear weapons.

Mr Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the US-based Stimson Centre, told The Straits Times that the regime may be less inclined to use a nuclear weapon now, but its nuclear threat has actually intensified as the past few years "allowed the research and development arm ample time to improve technical and theoretical capabilities".

"Out of this research and development space, we get the weapons systems we saw paraded through Kim Il Sung Square back in October," he added, referring to a new ICBM that experts noted is larger than the previously tested Hwasong-15.

Summit diplomacy was a "worthy attempt" but it did not go anywhere, said Mr Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

"A Biden administration would likely focus on pressure... while perhaps considering a resuscitation of the six-party talks format," he added, referring to the 2003-2007 nuclear talks involving the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas.

A scaled-down version involving the US, China and the two Koreas would also work, said Dr Cheong from Sejong Institute.

South Korea's role

South Korea's role in talks with the North is also important, experts said.

"North Korea will now have more use for (South Korean) President Moon Jae-in, as Kim will no longer have his own personal diplomacy hotline to the White House," said Asian politics expert Sean King from Washington-based consulting firm Park Strategies.

"The Biden administration will be more about process and alliances, which means Pyongyang will again have to spend time and energy going through Seoul to get to the US."

Analysts say the Moon administration is even trying to mend ties with Japan that soured over war-time forced labour issues, worried that tension with Tokyo could jeopardise their alliance with Washington, given Mr Biden's preference for multilateralism and boosting US alliances in Asia.

The good news for Seoul is that Mr Biden, unlike his predecessor, will probably demand "more modest increases" in stalled defence cost-sharing talks without threatening to withdraw US troops, noted Ewha Womans University's associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley.

He added that the US and its allies will "need to coordinate responses" to North Korea "so South Korea and Japan should handle difficult history issues more responsibly to prevent disruptions to cooperation".

Mr Madden said the first six months of next year will be "a period where we test North Korean intentions and our assumptions about them".

"If North Korea does not conduct high-profile test activity and gives Biden some space to shore up alliances, that means the North is willing to engage in negotiations and thinks there is a good probability of attaining an agreement with the US," he said.

"How Biden and Moon, and the US and South Korea interact, and what they say will be a major factor in Kim Jong Un's decision," he added.