The incoming Biden administration will face a nuclear catastrophe unless it can build good relations with North Korea. The U.S. President-Elect can begin by sending the right signals to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Because North Korea has nuclear weapons, the Biden administration cannot unilaterally impose terms on Pyongyang. Refusal to even talk with Pyongyang until it takes steps to denuclearize is a foolish and dangerous approach. Such an approach will likely inflame tensions and return Washington to a tense nuclear standoff with Pyongyang that poses a risk of miscalculation and accidental escalation into a nuclear war. Biden may be under pressure to be “tough” on North Korea to differentiate himself from Trump’s alleged cozy relationship with the North Korean dictator. However, a hostile stance toward Pyongyang will only make North Korea feel more insecure and drive Kim to pursue further nuclear development to ensure his regime’s survival.
Washington must recognize that Pyongyang has no incentive to denuclearize if the regime finds in nuclear weapons a guarantor of its survival and prestige. The only conceivable way that the regime might be persuaded to denuclearize is if denuclearization meets its needs for security and economic development. In return for denuclearization, Washington needs to offer Pyongyang a guarantee of regime survival, such as a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War, and an economic aid package. This offer should be extended in the context of an amicable personal relationship with Kim. Only when Kim feels safe enough, will he be open to the possibility of denuclearizing.
Building and maintaining good relations with Pyongyang does not equate to coddling dictators. During the Cold War, the United States maintained official diplomatic relations and regular open channels of communication with the Soviet Union even though the USSR was a totalitarian state. This steady relationship helped prevent a nuclear catastrophe, including during the Cuban missile crisis. Washington did not maintain steady relations with Moscow because it approved of the Communist regime and its human rights abuses. Rather, the United States pursued a strategy of realist diplomacy with the understanding that relations with nuclear-armed totalitarian states must be cultivated and managed well in the interest of maintaining peace and preventing a nuclear catastrophe. A decision by Biden to build good relations with Pyongyang should not be viewed as approval of the regime’s totalitarian character and human rights abuses.
As for approaches to negotiations on denuclearization, Washington must realize that North Korea may denuclearize only if enough confidence-building steps are taken to build mutual trust between the two sides. The United States should not impose top-down or sweeping terms at the outset of negotiations, such as requiring North Korea to declare a complete inventory of its nuclear weapons and spell out a comprehensive roadmap for full denuclearization. Pyongyang likely feels reluctant to show its hand before mutual trust has been established. It likely prefers a more flexible, ad hoc process, whereby the two sides engage in tit-for-tat reciprocal measures to build mutual confidence before any comprehensive roadmap is spelled out.
To start the bilateral U.S.-North Korea relationship off on the right footing and build mutual trust, Biden should reach out to Kim now, even before he takes office, with the right conciliatory gestures. North Korea is reportedly experiencing serious economic hardship due to damage from flooding this year and self-isolation imposed to combat COVID-19, on top of the economic damage already inflicted by UN sanctions against the regime. Despite the fact that the regime has denied the existence of COVID inside the country and has refused to accept aid, as North Korea faces the threat of mass hunger and malnutrition, an offer of humanitarian relief from Biden might be appreciated. Provision of emergency food aid via third-parties such as the UN World Food Program might make North Korea more likely to accept humanitarian assistance. Biden should also work with his team to come up with and undertake other imaginative measures to break the ice and build trust.
Finally, to build trust, Biden should offer to meet with Kim without any preconditions. The President-Elect should also offer to open high-level dialogue channels with Pyongyang, at which any and all issues can be discussed. Kim is apparently unhappy that his alleged good relationship with Trump has not led to success in negotiations with Washington or to significant economic gains for his regime. As a result, he may be questioning the utility of pursuing good relations with Biden and may even be under political pressure at home to be “tough” on Washington. However, Kim must realize that progress with Washington takes time and that if he rejects good relations and all negotiations with Washington, he may be giving up too soon. By rejecting Biden’s friendly gestures, Kim would only be giving in to the hardliners in Pyongyang and Washington, the same group who has contributed to the failure of negotiations under Trump.
Moreover, Kim must recognize that a policy of confrontation vis-à-vis Washington will isolate his country even further and only make his regime’s current economic hardships worse. Kim has more to gain by being patient with Washington and seeking friendly relations with Biden than by giving up on Washington altogether and pursuing a policy of confrontation. During his presidency, Biden will be preoccupied with addressing domestic challenges, including the COVID pandemic, and will be taking a political risk by spending precious time and resources on developing good relations with Pyongyang. Therefore, instead of rejecting Biden’s gestures and staging military provocations, Kim should reward Biden’s risk-taking by accepting the President-Elect’s offers of summitry and high-level dialogue channels. He can begin by reciprocating Biden’s friendly signals, including during an expected New Year’s address.
Ultimately, it is incumbent upon both Pyongyang and Washington to appreciate the importance of developing and maintaining good relations regardless of changes in the U.S. presidential administration. The stakes are high, given that the penalty for failure could be a nuclear crisis.
Jongsoo Lee is Senior Managing Director at Brock Securities and Center Associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is also Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum (Hawaii) and Contributing Editor at The Diplomat. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004.