Top Conflicts to Watch in 2021: A North Korea Crisis
Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As we turn the calendar on 2020 and embark on 2021, the incoming Joe Biden administration faces no shortage of challenges. The priority areas identified by his transition team include overcoming the pandemic, reviving the economy, achieving racial justice, and addressing climate change. Russia, China, and Iran have also been singled out as issues to be addressed. However, the number one concern identified in CFR’s annual Preventive Priorities Survey of foreign policy experts about potential geopolitical risks to worry about in the coming year—namely, a renewed crisis on the Korean Peninsula—has received scant attention in comparison. This is surprising as the issue has hardly gone away—to the contrary, in fact. President Obama warned President-elect Trump in November 2016 that the most vexing international security threat he would face would emanate from North Korea. Two nuclear tests, myriad long-range missile tests, and three Trump-Kim summits later, the magnitude and likelihood of North Korea posing a catastrophic threat to U.S. national interests is greater than it was four years ago.
Despite President Trump’s assertions that he averted a war with North Korea by developing a close personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, Trump’s diplomacy appears to have only changed the tone of the relationship while failing to address the underlying problems posed by North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.
It is not clear that Kim’s self-restraint on long-range missile testing will continue. At the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) Eighth Party Congress staged only days prior to the Biden administration’s inauguration, Kim characterized the United States as its “foremost principal enemy,” and criticized U.S. perceived “hostile policy” toward North Korea despite North Korea’s “good-will efforts.” Military parades staged in conjunction with the Eighth Party Congress and on the October 10, 2020, 75th anniversary of the WPK revealed that North Korea has strengthened its conventional forces and has developed but not yet tested several new types of missiles capable of delivering a nuclear strike on the United States. While the Trump administration has left the door open to diplomatic negotiations since a one-day meeting with North Korean officials in Stockholm in October 2019, North Korea has refused to come to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Kim’s 2018 summitry gambit and accompanying economic hopes have turned to distress in the face of ongoing sanctions, North Korea’s COVID quarantine, and flooding from a series of typhoons, putting even greater pressure on Kim to achieve an economic breakthrough. North Korea’s Eighth Party Congress addressed these and other economic challenges while pledging to continue its military development and promising to respond to “force with toughness” and “good faith in kind.” This was as close as Kim came during the eight-day Party Congress to providing a signal of intent to open negotiations with the Biden administration.
In addition, many analysts expect North Korea to revert to its traditional playbook by returning to nuclear and missile tests as means by which to test new leaders as Kim has previously done with Obama, Xi Jinping, Park Geun-hye, and Trump. North Korea’s purpose in pursuing provocations would be to push North Korea closer to the top of the Biden administration’s agenda by generating a crisis atmosphere and shaping the space and prospects for diplomatic negotiations. Anticipation of North Korean provocations is so high that analysts have either rushed to recommend that Biden extend an early olive branch to North Korea in an effort to forestall a crisis or speculated about how to capitalize on a crisis to induce North Korea to return to denuclearization negotiations.
Regardless of whether Kim Jong-un is motivated by domestic economic distress or the desire to redress long-held international grievances, North Korea’s insistence on presenting itself as an entrenched nuclear weapons state remains at odds with the longstanding U.S. policy and international security norms upheld by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But North Korea’s capabilities are also an undeniable reality and an international security threat that must be managed to avoid catastrophic results. The Biden administration will need to devise a set of early actions to reassure North Korea of its willingness to engage in negotiations, reduce the risk of North Korean miscalculation, and forestall likely attention-grabbing provocations by North Korea, regardless of whether they emanate from manifestations of Kim’s military strength or his economic weakness.