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Monday, September 20, 2021, 10:00 (GMT+7)
U.S. calculations in North Korean nuclear issue

After 30 years’ implementation of sanctions, threat or use of force, and dialogue at many levels, the North Korean nuclear issue is not only resolved but also becomes more complex. President Joe Biden administration is still very careful to approach this issue.

North Korea’s moves

Soon after Joe Biden had officially become the next president of the United States, North Korea launched a new type of tactical guided weapon in March 2021. This move is not surprising because this scenario usually unfolds whenever a new government is formed in the U.S. For example, nearly three months after President Barack Obama had taken office, in April 2009, North Korea fired a long-range missile. This country also carried out a nuclear test six weeks later. Next, in February 2017, Pyongyang welcomed President Donald Trump by launching a medium-range ballistic missile while he was having a wonderful dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago, Florida. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un decided to play an old game at this time to continue to send a strong message to U.S.’s newly-elected president, who Pyongyang certainly felt a little disappointed when he had not prioritised resolution of North Korean nuclear issue during his election campaign. Additionally, the personal relationship between President Joe Biden and leader Kim Jong Un is not good at all when both have used bad words to describe each other. The tactic for mounting tension in Korean Peninsula to draw the attention of the new administration in Washington is no longer new but it may seem the most feasible choice in the context of Joe Biden’s neglect of the North Korean nuclear issue. The restart of a cycle of psychological warfare through new military threats means that U.S.-North Korea “honeymoon” and the noisy summits with former President Donald Trump are over. It is time for North Korea to return to the familiar old rhetoric of demonstrating it progress in weapon development with the aim of inducing Joe Biden to use diplomatic tools to control the fury of Pyongyang. Consequently, to some extent, the introduction of new missiles through familiar ways at Joe Biden’s vital moments can be seen as a positive signal that North Korea is willing to resume dialogue.

Leader Kim Jong-un called the United States the biggest enemy at the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party held in January 2021, and this nature and policy remain unchanged, whoever is in power. North Korean leader, however, still appreciates the agreement reached at the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit and considers this agreement foundation for future negotiations about the relationships between U.S. and North Korea. Although Pyongyang continues to pursue strengthening of military power, it does not completely slam the door on dialogue with Washington. This is a realistic thinking because North Korea really wants U.S. to ease sanctions, which have suffocated its economy for decades.

According to latest data of the Bank of Korea (BOK), North Korea’s economy is severely affected by sanctions over its nuclear, missile programs, the Covid-19 pandemic, and bad weather. In 2020, the country with a total population of over 25 million suffered from the worst economic recession since 1997 when its gross domestic product (GDP) decreased 6.5 percent. The North Korean leader’s call for officials to “wage another, more difficult Arduous March,” a term used by North Korea officials to refer to the country’s struggle during the 1990s famine, aims to motivate people. Nevertheless, the truly effective solution to present challenges is nothing except for reducing pressure from sanctions to create favourable conditions for economic development. The only way to attain this goal is negotiation with Washington.

It must be acknowledged that even when tensions hit a peak, Washington has never given up dialogue with Pyongyang. As an experienced politician, President Joe Biden, who was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 29, may continue to pursue this approach. Soon after becoming the president of the United States, Joe Biden affirmed that diplomatic channels remain open for Pyongyang. However, the difficult question is that none of the parties wishes to act first due to lack of strategic trust.

U.S.’s calculations

The relationship between Washington and Pyongyang has never been simple as there are considerable suspicion and mistrust between them. Despite a difficult start during Donald Trump’s presidency, the two sides made surprise moves with summits which captured global attention. However, the openness of U.S. leader did not make any further advances in the relationship between the two former foes.

According to analysts, being surrounded by major powers makes North Korea believe that progress in nuclear weapons and missile technology is crucial for safeguarding the country and the regime. The tragic ending of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after abandoning weapons of mass destruction in 2003 was certainly an expensive lesson for North Korea. Consequently, it is extremely difficult for North Korea to give up its nuclear program. The biggest question for President Joe Biden now is to pursue dialogue or confrontation because it seems that both approaches have failed to control Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

Joe Biden, who used to be President Barack Obama’s vice president, is believed to carry on his predecessor’s policy of strategic patience on North Korea. Accordingly, the U.S. advocates waiting for North Korea to voluntarily give up its nuclear program under the pressure of economic sanctions. Nevertheless, some people claim that Joe Biden will adopt another approach since today’s situation has changed completely. The newly elected president has not proclaimed his policy on North Korea so far. Recently, at their first summit held in Washington on 21 May 2021, President Joe Biden and President Moon Jae-in declared that they would adopt a more practical approach with some adjustments aimed to create openness and opportunities for dialogue with North Korea. There is little information about how Joe Biden will deal with North Korea’s nuclear issue. However, it is estimated that the issue will be addressed according to the “Goldilocks Principle.” It means that a middle path must be worked out to avoid Donald Trump’s “art of the deal” and Barack Obama’s “strategic patience.”

The United State during Joe Biden’s presidency is believed to return to traditional foreign policy, which is completely different from Donald Trump’s highly personalised diplomacy. Biden is likely to adopt the bottom-up approach instead of his predecessor’s top-down style. Accordingly, negotiations will be conducted from working groups, senior officials to summits. This approach may take time to make major breakthroughs in U.S.-North Korea relations but will allow the two parties to make appropriate adjustments once situations occur, ensuring that everything is kept under control. This approach suits expectations of Joe Biden administration. They do not wish to see mounting tensions, at least in the early days of Biden’s presidency.

In his first interview, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the possibility of implementing a “double dealing” policy on North Korea. It means that Washington will impose further sanction on North Korea, but it will seek to engage this country. This message at least lessens concern that Joe Biden administration will only take tough measures, which potentially leads to strategic calculations. In fact, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tends to accept negotiations in favour of national interests when he is determined to pursue the principle of simultaneous actions, commitment for commitment, action for action, and goodwill for goodwill. Consequently, according to observers, if concessions can be made at the right moments, especially those relating to the lifting of economic sanctions on Pyongyang, a breakthrough is completely possible.

Mapping out a route to complete denuclearisation of North Korean Peninsula while ensuring mutual respect and immutable principles of each party is a daunting task for Joe Biden administration. However, North Korea is a problem that cannot be ignored. The search for a suitable solution to this flash point remains one of the most important missions of the United States. If risks of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are not removed at once, at least the U.S. can have some mechanisms to prevent them from getting worst. This prospect will easily come true if Washington works closely with its allies in the region such as South Korea and Japan. Omitting friends with shared interests through unilateral policies like Donald Trump had done during his presidency neither served to promote trust nor brought about any considerable advances in the resolution of North Korea’s nuclear issue.

Senior Colonel, Doctor Nguyen Tien Cuong, National Defence Academy

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