January 13, 2021 | Insight
Kim Jong Un Seeks to Bully Biden on the Diplomatic Stage
January 13, 2021 | Insight
Kim Jong Un Seeks to Bully Biden on the Diplomatic Stage
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un finally broke his silence last week on his regime’s policy toward the incoming Biden administration, labeling the United States as Pyongyang’s “foremost principal enemy.” Accordingly, he outlined North Korea’s latest plans to enhance its nuclear program and military capabilities in order to “contain and subdue the U.S. fundamental obstacle.”
Although Kim’s saber-rattling rhetoric, which occurred during the Eighth Party Congress of the North Korean Worker’s Party, seems to hint that Pyongyang is closing the door on diplomacy, a closer look at his remarks suggests something different.
The North Korean leader’s approach seeks to restore dialogue with the United States in order to deceive and coerce Washington and its allies not only to achieve early sanctions relief, but also to put Pyongyang on the path to achieve its long-term strategic goals: being recognized as a nuclear power and removing the United States from the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang has never abandoned its maximalist positions, even when Kim engaged President Donald Trump in unconventional, experimental, top-down diplomacy; now Kim is laying the groundwork to continue his regime’s political warfare against the incoming Biden administration.
One indicator that North Korea is still open to dialogue is that Kim placed the onus on the United States to start a “new relationship” with Pyongyang by ending Washington’s “hostile policy” toward North Korea. The North Korean government has consistently defined “hostile policy” as the U.S. military’s presence on the Korean Peninsula as well as the economic sanctions regime. Consequently, for Pyongyang, ending the “hostile policy” would entail removing all U.S. troops from South Korea, doing away with extended deterrence and the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan, and providing premature sanctions relief.
North Korea has an extensive track record of exploiting “blackmail diplomacy” to engage foreign governments, namely South Korea and the United States, with the sole intent of extorting political, economic, military, and humanitarian benefits while giving up nothing of its own in return. These disingenuous diplomatic efforts constitute the most explicit examples of North Korea’s political warfare, which seeks to influence its adversaries’ political decision making through coercion, subversion, and deception.
Kim has laid a firm groundwork to enter any future negotiation from a position of strength. During the Eighth Party Congress, North Korea’s leadership announced several new goals relevant to strengthening its nuclear weapons and missile arsenal. These included Pyongyang’s interest in developing hypersonic missiles and solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. Both weapons systems would help North Korea improve the survivability and resiliency of its arsenal against most U.S. missile defense assets. As Pyongyang attempts to erode the significant military advantages enjoyed by the United States and its allies, these weapons could help Kim boost his own negotiating leverage and even set the terms of negotiations.
Kim’s introduction of these new weapons also suggests that he may propose arms control rather than denuclearization talks with the United States. Kim could be successful in establishing such terms of negotiation if it becomes clear to Washington that North Korea’s improving arsenal ensures North Korea’s ability to effectively threaten U.S. security both abroad and at home. Such a scenario would tremendously benefit the Kim regime, because it would essentially cement North Korea as a de facto nuclear power and earn it a perceived status nearly equal to that of the United States, at least in the context of Korean affairs.
Kim’s comments directed toward South Korea offered another sign that he is positioning himself favorably for possible negotiations. Specifically, Kim directly blamed Seoul for the poor state of inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang’s criticism of Seoul is likely part of Kim’s ongoing political warfare to influence South Korean decision making.
For instance, last summer, Pyongyang blew up a joint liaison office in the North Korean town of Kaesong and subsequently threatened to abrogate a joint military agreement between South and North Korea. This coordinated North Korean action sought to protest South Korea’s inaction on banning or punishing North Korean escapees and human rights activists who routinely send anti-Kim regime propaganda materials, devices, money, and information across the border. Seoul subsequently conceded to Pyongyang by banning these activities and passing a controversial law in South Korea’s National Assembly to codify harsher penalties for those who continue to send leaflets and conduct similar activism.
Pyongyang’s latest feat in spurring Seoul to pass the law puts Kim in an optimal position to create further problems for the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The passage of the law has elicited widespread criticism from several U.S. officials because the law undermines civil liberties essential to the norms and foundational values of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Yet Seoul shows no sign that it intends to repeal the law.
Furthermore, Kim is likely employing this criticism of Seoul to create greater anxiety in South Korea’s leadership, which has made clear on numerous occasions its desire to strengthen inter-Korean relations and engagement. Seoul’s push for cooperation with Pyongyang has sometimes even come at odds with Washington’s efforts to enforce sanctions and impose maximum pressure on the Kim regime.
Moreover, Kim’s verbal attacks on Seoul may constitute a ploy to make the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in offer another concession for the sake of reviving inter-Korean ties while Seoul neglects its shared interests with Washington. North Korea, in turn, could significantly boost its own negotiating leverage by isolating South Korea and the United States from each other, another traditional regime tactic. Kim can accomplish this by exacerbating unresolved friction between the two allies.
When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he must not concede to Kim’s persistent efforts to intimidate Washington and Seoul. Instead, Biden should first prioritize ameliorating unresolved disputes between Washington and Seoul to offset Pyongyang’s attempts to damage this historic alliance.
To do so, the United States and South Korea must reassess the fundamental strategic assumption that Pyongyang shares Seoul’s desire to continue engagement for the sake of peace. Unfortunately for the Moon administration, Pyongyang’s persistent political warfare underscores its long-term strategy for the eventual reunification of Korea under northern leadership to ensure regime survival.
The allies should thus use the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-State Department strategy working group and the U.S.-South Korea Military Committee to conduct a thorough assessment of allied policies and strategy and the assumptions upon which they are based. Reaching a new consensus on these assumptions will be critical for the alliance to construct a new political-military approach for a long-term solution to North Korea.
For this new approach to be viable, the United States, South Korea, and their other allies should impose a comprehensive pressure campaign integrating diplomatic, economic, military, cyber resources, and information and influence activities to raise the costs of Kim’s nuclear weapons. In so doing, the allies can increase Pyongyang’s sense of urgency to consider an alternative strategy that does not involve nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. Pressure will be essential for any future diplomatic campaign to achieve a solution that benefits all those involved.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research analyst. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David, Mathew, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.