After a brief silence, it may again be Kim Jung-un’s turn to draw the world’s attention. The North Korean leader has recently acknowledged his country is facing the “worst-ever situation”. This is absolutely on the cards as the coronavirus lockdown unleashed further shock on an economy already devastated by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
In fact, starting in mid-February, the Biden administration launched a behind-the-scenes push to reach out to North Korea through multiple channels. However, Pyongyang remained reluctant, saying that Washington must discard its “hostile” policies first. In mid-March, North Korea issued a fiery threat to the Biden administration when Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister Kim Yo-jong blasted the continuation of military drills between the US and South Korea as “ridiculous, impudent and stupid”. “We take this opportunity to warn the new US administration trying hard to give off (gun) powder smell in our land,” she said. She warned: “If it [the United States] wants to sleep in peace for (the) coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step,” and went on to say: “War drill and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation.”
The style of the US response to North Korea has changed over years. While President Clinton had showcased a ‘carrot’ to Pyongyang, Bush had opted to play the game with a ‘stick’. Barack Obama, in contrast, was in favour of the ‘wait and watch’ policy, by mixing rewards and punishments. The Obama administration possibly assumed that young and inexperienced Kim would break down amid severe international pressure and sanctions. However, Kim, with North Korea’s repeated nuclear tests, soon became too serious a threat to global peace for the world to ignore.
President Trump was against Kim Jong-un initially. In fact, there was a bit of comic relief amid ugly spats between the two leaders. While Trump preferred to call Kim the ‘Little Rocket Man’ – a name derived from Elton John’s 1972 song ‘Rocket Man’, Kim, in turn, termed President Trump a ‘Dotard’. However, it’s not a secret that Trump desperately wanted a Nobel Peace Prize to glorify his legacy, and of course to match the achievements of his predecessor, Barack Obama. He quickly spotted that the North Korean crisis had tremendous potential to earn that coveted prize. And his social media spats and shadow war against Pyongyang and its young leader turned into negotiations and summits in the quest for peace. A ‘little rocket man’ suddenly appeared ‘very open’ and ‘very honorable’ to Mr. Trump!
However, the much-hyped summits in Singapore in 2018, and then in Hanoi in 2019, couldn’t deliver much, as one could have anticipated. Yes, Kim came to Hanoi after a twoand- a-half day train journey. And, it was a unique opportunity for Trump to exhibit to Kim the glitter of economic development that is possible to achieve even within the one-party communist system, provided you extend friendship to the US, by showcasing Vietnam’s example. However, it’s not that the Supreme Leaders of North Korea didn’t know how the market economy works. Beijing must have repeatedly asked them for economic reform, and Bill Clinton’s America also wanted to inspire Pyongyang through the Vietnam model. However, that didn’t work even when Pyongyang wasn’t a nuclear power.
Understandably, North Korea may not agree to denuclearization easily. It will be a mistake to assume Kim or his advisors are naive enough not to realize that it would have been far more difficult for the US to dismantle the regimes of Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi if they had possessed nuclear arsenals. And Trump scrapping the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal didn’t help either – it might become very difficult for Pyongyang to rely on a possible treaty with Washington and destroy its nuclear weapons accordingly. Kim believes that his country’s nuclear weapons program is a ‘treasured sword’, and the nuclear weapons are a ‘powerful deterrent’ guaranteeing the country’s sovereignty against what he describes as “protracted nuclear threats of the US imperialists”. Pyongyang has objected to the US rhetoric of denuclearizing amid the sanctions. In effect, Kim’s attempt at ambitious diplomacy with Trump collapsed over disagreements in lifting sanctions for North Korea’s denuclearisation steps.
It’s true that Pyongyang didn’t fire missiles for some time in between and no nuclear weapon has been tested since 2017. However, if we think carefully, Pyongyang had tested six nuclear weapons by then – including two in 2006 and 2009 during the regime of Kim Jong-il. And if we study the history of development of nuclear weapons in different countries, it’s clear that the data obtained in six such tests is almost enough for carrying out subsequent research and development. So, it was possibly a strategic decision of Kim to try to emerge as a world leader after the sixth nuclear test in September 2017 through the negotiation tables in Singapore and Hanoi.
Yes, North Korea has made rapid progress in its weapons programme in recent years. Towards the end of 2015, Kim had announced that they had made the hydrogen bomb as well. Throughout 2017, North Korea tested several missiles – the Hwasong- 12 was thought to be able to put US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam well within striking distance; the Hwasong-14 demonstrated even greater potential, capable of reaching New York; and when the Hwasong-15 was tested, it put all of the continental US in range.
Pyongyang started 2021 unveiling what its state media has described as “the world’s most powerful weapon”, which was launched just days before Biden’s inauguration in January. In the second half of March, North Korea reportedly fired two non-ballistic missiles into the Yellow Sea, and then it fired two ballistic missiles into the sea to its east. So, not only the neighbouring South Korea or Japan, the US across the Pacific is reasonably anxious about North Korea’s military power. A difficult time for Joe Biden as well.
While North Korea wants Washington to lift economic sanction, the US knows that sanctions are the only way to control Pyongyang. Not even the slightest trust exists between them, possibly. Will the Biden administration now mount pressure on North Koea’s ‘Supreme Leader’? Will it be able to compel Kim to pursue denuclear ization of the Korean peninsula as a long-term goal to be targeted in phases?
North Korea, now equipped with nuclear arsenals, is economically in its “worst-ever situation” and Kim has already tasted the flavour of being a world leader in Singapore and Hanoi. Now, it’ll be difficult for Biden to adopt a ‘wait and watch’ game as Obama could afford to do. Pyongyang has already been expressing disgust at the presence of US military in the region. And there is every sign that in coming days, Pyongyang will continually test the international community and Team Biden to gauge its responses. Another big showdown between a US president and Kim Jong-un is on the cards.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.