[Sejong Policy Brief] No. 2020-19 (December 11, 2020)
Measures of Cooperation with the Biden Administration in North Korean Affairs
Dr. HONG Hyun-ik
Senior Research Fellow, The Sejong Institute
■ Support of Biden’s Transition Team in South Korea’s North Korea Policy
- The ROK Government should be fully prepared and swiftly and effective implement every possible measure to ensure that South
Korea and the U.S. can actively cooperate and create synergy in resuming the peace process on the Korean Peninsula by
encouraging Biden’s transition team and his future administration to quickly respond to South Korea’s policy related to North
Korea and nuclear weapon issues.
■ Biden’s Perception on North Korea
- President-elect Joe Biden is a veteran politician with a forward-looking perception of diplomacy and has shown his will to negotiate
even with so-called rouge states such as North Korea. However, Biden has emphasized tough measures against North Korea,
including isolation and sanctions, and bottom-up style of negotiations through working-level talks in consideration of the past
actions of North Korea and his political position as a former vice president and a rival to President Trump.
- During his term as a vice president, Biden carried out his diplomatic stance that values negotiations by normalizing relations between
the U.S. and Cuba and achieving nuclear agreement with Iran. Along with such points, it is notable that Biden stresses on issues of
verification and human rights.
■ Possibilities of the U.S.-DPRK Negotiations in the Biden Administration
- The upcoming Biden administration can be an opportunity factor for the U.S.-DPRK negotiation on following points. First, this
administration is likely to listen to South Korea’s position; second, this administration has higher policy predictability; third, there
is a possibility of the U.S. to create more room for flexible management of sanctions against North Korea; fourth, this administration
is open to hold a summit if North Korea agrees to reduce its nuclear capability; fifth, it will be difficult for Washington to neglect
Pyongyang, because North Korea’s nuclear capability has been strengthened to the level of threatening the U.S.
- At the same time, limiting factors also exist. The transition team is facing urgent domestic problems related to racial conflicts and the
COVID-19. It will be difficult to pay attention to the North Korean issues. Hearings on high-ranking diplomatic officials will be held
for several months, and so, the U.S.-DPRK negotiation is likely to be delayed. There could be other challenging factors, considering
tough statements of Biden against North Korea, Biden’s opposition to Trump’s policies, and possible provocation of North Korea due
to misjudgment. Appropriate responses are imperative.
■ Future Prospect
- On July 10, 2020, Pyongyang hinted that it is ready to start a negotiation with the U.S. through the statement of Kim Yo-jong. In
September, two leaders of the two Koreas exchanged letters. However, North Korea did not come to the table for negotiations
with South Korea and the U.S. due to the North’s handling of the COVID-19, the murder of a South Korean official in the West
Sea in September and the Trump administration’s preparation for the presidential election.
- Considering the past conduct, it is difficult to expect North Korea to voluntarily and actively engage in dialogue and negotiations even
if its economy is severely harmed. Pyongyang will agree to talk if the South Korean government and the Biden transition team
provide the North enough justification for dialogue and excuses to save face.
- If the South Korean government does not show any move, North Korea is expected to watch the Biden administration’s North Korea
policy. It is also expected to refrain from provocations until late January of 2021 due to the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of
Korea in early January, Biden’s inauguration on January 20 and the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly in late January.
- However, in the meantime, if the Biden administration does not show its willingness to engage in North Korean affairs, Pyongyang
will declare a tough stance against the U.S. at the Congress and the Supreme People’s Assembly. Furthermore, it is difficult to rule
out the possibility of the North to launch a major provocation in the first half of 2021. In this case, the Korean Peninsula will face
another crisis, and the possibility of restoring the peace process will be extremely low.
■ Policy Proposal: Measures of the ROK-U.S. Cooperation in Strategy for North Korea
- Based on the lessons in early 1993 and early 2009, South Korea should make the Biden administration to become the third term of
the Clinton administration, not the third term of the Obama administration, by deterring North Korea’s misjudgment, encouraging
the U.S. to engage and not abandon the North, and restoring the peace process on the Korean Peninsula through the preparation
for swift cooperation with the U.S.
- South Korea should secure communication channels for inter-Korean dialogue as soon as possible, express its intention to restore
inter-Korean relations through all available channels, and deter North Korea’s hasty provocations. The South can further advise the
North to take an initiative to cease nuclear activities, possibly on a conditional base.
- The South Korean government should persuade the Biden transition team that an early engagement with the North is a wise decision
by reminding them of the experience of North Korea’s provocation in early 2009, which spoiled the mood despite the optimistic
observation of Washington that Pyongyang will make concessions. Seoul can advise Washington that it would be a good start if the
U.S. appoints a new North Korea Policy Coordinator, respects the June 12 Singapore Declaration and expresses its willingness to
adopt the end-of-war declaration.
- South Korea’s North Korea policy team should work closely with the Biden transition team to make an agreement on the basic
direction of the step-by-step approach, the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization, and the details of the phased, correspondent
measures of the U.S. in accordance with North Korea’s denuclearization process. Afterward, South Korea should inform and obtain
China’s consent and then present the agreed materials to North Korea. It would be an ideal timeline if North Korea reflects this
outcome at the Party Congress in next January and the U.S. resumes working-level negotiations at the beginning of Biden’s term,
before the ROK-U.S. joint drills in March.
- It is important to gain support for normalization and improvement of inter-Korean relations in the logic that amicable inter-Korean
relations will help the U.S. and North Korea resume negotiations.
- It seems appropriate to take advantage of the Chinese government’s influence on North Korea, promote economic cooperation
among South Korea, North Korea, and China, and establish an organization for Northeast Asian disease control and health
cooperation that includes North Korea.
- When negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. begin, it would be ideal to take a roadmap with three-step approach after
building mutual trust. Obstacles to the U.S.-DPRK negotiations will be nuclear report system, the subject of denuclearization,
guarantee of irreversibility, and verification. In terms of verification, North Korea must adopt a forward-looking attitude. For the
rest, the U.S. must be more flexible ultimately for mutual security.
▶ For a full article in Korean, please follow the link:
※ This article is written based on the author’s personal opinions and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.
※ Translator’s note: This is a summarized unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean.
All references should be made to the original paper.