In Brief

What Kind of North Korea Will Biden Face?

North Korea will likely continue to develop its nuclear program, but Kim Jong-un could return to negotiations if the United States makes concessions.

What is North Korea’s attitude toward the United States after four years of Donald J. Trump’s presidency?

In early January, North Korea’s government convened a party congress, a gathering held periodically to guide governance and policy, where leader Kim Jong-un identified the United States as the country’s primary enemy. He declared that North Korea will respond to “force with toughness” and to “good faith in kind,” and stated that the United States would have to withdraw its “hostile policy” to improve relations with North Korea.

More From Our Experts

This position echoes North Korean statements given in the last two years of former President Trump’s administration. Since the 2019 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi failed, Kim publicly returned to North Korea’s long-standing demands that the United States abandon its “hostile policy.”

More on:

North Korea

Kim Jong-un

Nuclear Weapons

Transition 2021

Alongside this assessment, the congress focused on measures to revitalize all aspects of the distressed North Korean economy and set goals for modernizing a number of weapons systems, including a missile with a range of fifteen thousand kilometers; miniaturizing and deploying tactical nuclear weapons; and developing submarine-launched ballistic missile capabilities.

The overall message is that North Korea will continue to deepen its reliance on nuclear development as a deterrent against perceived U.S. aggression. However, it has not ruled out a return to negotiations if the United States makes further concessions. North Korea’s military development serves as leverage North Korea could use to frame future negotiations with the United States around arms control rather than denuclearization.

In 2020, there were rumors about Kim’s deteriorating health. What do we know about his health now?

Several extended absences from public view in 2020 raised questions about Kim’s health, though he actively led the recent party congress. Examining recent photos of Kim, external observers estimated that he has gained between sixty and eighty pounds during his first decade in power. He is also known to be a heavy smoker and is suspected to suffer from periodic gout, making a health crisis in 2021 a real possibility.

More From Our Experts

Have there been any changes to North Korea’s leadership?

During the party congress, fast-rising former Organization and Guidance Department Vice Director Jo Yong-won was appointed to North Korea’s highest-ranking party body capable of making leadership decisions, the five-member Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Most notably, the congress authorized the presidium to be led by any of its members, rather than exclusively by Kim Jong-un, enabling the presidium to meet for business with Kim’s approval. Kim also took the title of general secretary of the party, a position that had been vacant since his father’s death a decade ago, signaling that his authority is now equivalent to the level of authority his father exercised. 

Kim Jong-un wears a leather jacket and fur hat. He waves his hand and smiles.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves during a ceremony for the party congress in 2021. KCNA/Reuters

Kim’s younger sister, Yo-jung, first emerged publicly during the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics as an envoy for her brother and appears to be the individual most capable of perpetuating Kim family rule if something were to happen him. But Yo-jung was not included as a member or alternate member of the WPK Politburo, and as the most visible member of the Kim family after her brother, there was much speculation surrounding her apparent demotion. However, her recent issuance of a public statement criticizing South Korea quieted some speculation about a decline in her influence.

More on:

North Korea

Kim Jong-un

Nuclear Weapons

Transition 2021

What actions should the Joe Biden administration take toward North Korea?

The Biden administration should privately attempt to establish reliable, high-level channels of communication with the North Korean leadership for use in the event of a crisis. In close coordination with South Korea, the Biden administration should present its objectives and parameters for pursuing peace-and-denuclearization policies toward North Korea, affirming Kim’s pledge to work toward “complete denuclearization” and U.S. pledges to work toward the establishment of normal relations, as contained in the 2018 Singapore Declaration. If Biden affirms the Singapore Declaration, North Korea should ease its rhetoric around the United States’ hostile policy and affirm its willingness to implement the declaration.

Based on this framework, the Biden administration should propose working-level negotiations with North Korea designed to contain and manage mutual threats and reduce military tensions in a step-by-step manner. These negotiations should seek to contain and gradually reduce the North Korean nuclear threat and identify practical steps to establish peaceful U.S.-North Korea relations. One of the lessons of the past four years is that Trump-style personal diplomacy should be part of a strategy for achieving national security objectives and not conducted to achieve political effects that support personal objectives.

The Biden administration should preserve stability on the Korean Peninsula by working with South Korea to maintain effective conventional and extended nuclear deterrence, including the continuation of joint exercises necessary to ensure military readiness. It should also explore measures for reducing risks of military conflict along the Demilitarized Zone dividing North Korea and South Korea.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
Close
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail
Close

Top Stories on CFR

Cybersecurity

It is time for the federal government to exercise its existing authority to regulate the cybersecurity of pipelines.

Coronavirus

As COVID-19 continues to ravage countries including Brazil and India, scientists warn that cases and deaths are being undercounted. Without accurate tallies, government responses won’t be enough to defeat outbreaks.

Taiwan

Differences over Taiwan’s status have fueled rising tensions between the island and the mainland. Conflict over Taiwan also has the potential to be a flash point in U.S.-China relations.