Despite unprecedented U.S. military and economic pressure, North Korea has kept its economy stable and increased the power and scope of its nuclear deterrent, forcing Washington to temper its bellicosity and come to the table.
With the inauguration of a new administration in January 2021 following a year of decline for America’s economy and global influence, the nature of Washington’s future approaches to tackling a number of its leading foreign policy challenges has been the subject of widespread interest.
The U.S.’ geopolitical position has shifted over the past four years, with some of the more prolific examples in 2020 specifically being the fact that China’s economy became a full sixth (17%) larger than that of America, and that China’s military fully matched U.S. spending levels on new acquisitions.
The formerly unthinkable fact that Iran was able to brazenly launch a missile attack on an American military base in Iraq in January and cause over 100 casualties without suffering retribution was an earlier example that year.
Looking further back to 2017, another significant development under the Donald Trump administration which heralded a relative decline in American power was North Korea’s development and demonstration of its potential capability to launch thermonuclear warheads against targets across the U.S. mainland.
This was first time in history a small state gained the capability to threaten and deter a superpower located so far away without having to rely on a superpower benefactor for protection, with North Korea exploiting asymmetric technologies to provide it with protection against a country which was otherwise overwhelmingly more powerful.
For Pyongyang in particular, where the Donald Trump administration’s policies took a particularly sharp turn away from the status quo set by its predecessors, and where a process of détente and negotiation could well be cut short by the president’s departure, the path Trump’s successor will take remains highly uncertain.
North Korea and the United States have been officially at war for more than 70 years, with the Korean War beginning in June 1950 and effectively freezing in an armistice three years later which has yet to be succeeded by a formal peace deal.
The years of Trump’s presidency saw a number of major developments in this conflict in a very short period, including an unprecedented degree of economic pressure against the East Asian state with Western-drafted sanctions resolutions imposed both unilaterally by the U.S. and its European partners and through the United Nations Security Council from 2017.
Perhaps more remarkable than the sanctions themselves, which were considerably harsher than those which had driven Iran, Iraq, Venezuela and many others to economic ruin, was the stability and continued growth of the North Korean economy and the stability of exchange rates and prices for basic goods.
That year also saw major progress in the development of the Korean nuclear deterrent and demonstration of unprecedented new capabilities for retaliatory strikes on U.S. targets, including not only the mainland but also bases across East Asia. This was followed by the first ever one-to-one meeting between the leaders of the two countries the following year, which Pyongyang had been requesting for over two decades, and subsequently in 2019 by the first visit to North Korea by a U.S. president, albeit only symbolically crossing a few meters over the border.
For North Korea, the issue of a change in U.S. administration has less to do with which political party is necessarily more favorable to its interests, and more to do with the issue of continuity and the failure of most Cold War administrations to learn from their predecessors and effectively pick up where they left off.
This has led to the emergence of cycles of escalation, with incoming administrations seeking to place further economic sanctions and military pressure on Pyongyang, and with North Korea responding by carrying out conspicuous tests of ballistic missiles and at times nuclear weapons in response. This has most often been followed by reductions of tensions through some relaxation of economic and military pressure by the U.S. side, and a reduction in conspicuous testing of strategic weapons by the Korean side.
The repetition of this cycle could be seen under the Bill Clinton administration, where the Agreed Framework deal did much to reduce tensions, and subsequently under the George W. Bush administration, where North Korea toned down missile-testing efforts in return for significant relief of economic pressure and removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism designation after an initial period of high tensions.
Most recently under the Donald Trump administration, North Korea’s demonstration of a viable capability to deliver thermonuclear warheads to cities across the U.S. mainland came years ahead of Western expectations and seriously undermined the possibility of U.S. military coercion.
The result within six months was a détente which saw the U.S. refocus its political and military attentions away from Korea, end major military exercises targeting the country, and relax pressure on China and other third parties to enforce sanctions, with Pyongyang in turn pausing strategic missile-testing.
While changes in administration in the U.S. do inevitably have an influence on foreign relations, foreign policy in both Washington and Pyongyang has been shaped much more by institutions and the views of policy establishments than by individuals.
In the U.S. this includes organizations such as the country’s intelligence establishment and the Council on Foreign Relations, and in the Korean case consists primarily of the Korean Workers’ Party and Korean People’s Army [KPA]. Thus, while leaders of both countries may change, ultimately there is a strong continuity in how both foreign and domestic policy is conducted on both sides, with these being determined by much more established and permanent factors than a single individual or administration.
The years of the Donald Trump administration, however, did see the president take strong positions in a small minority of foreign policy issues which were contrary to those of the policy establishment. These faced very strong resistance from the opposition, the intelligence establishment, and often from within the Republican Party itself, with the three most notable examples being cutting arms transfers to Ukraine, attempted withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and peace overtures towards North Korea.
In contrast to the Trump administration, the Biden administration is expected to take a more conventional approach to foreign policy and take a harder line against North Korea relative to those of the Bush and Clinton years, and similar to the more extreme position of the Barack Obama years.
The Obama administration very early on oversaw an escalation in tensions following a minor détente in the late Bush years, despite early peace overtures from Pyongyang, and took a largely ideologically driven hard line against North Korea. The administration was the only exception to the cycle of escalation followed by concessions, and instead pursued continuous escalation right into its final year.
In 2016 this brought the two countries to a stage which may well have been the closest they ever came to open war since the 1960s, as noted in the thirteenth chapter of my recent book:
Alongside unprecedented expansion of the sanctions regime to very broadly target the Korean economy, pursued largely by exerting pressure on China and Russia at the United Nations, Obama oversaw escalation of military exercises on North Korea’s borders, a program of cyberattacks targeting the country, and sharp escalation of information warfare efforts.
With Joe Biden having served as Barack Obama’s vice president, and having expressed support for very similar policies, a similar hard-line position is expected. As a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination Biden echoed discourse prevalent throughout the party by slamming Trump for having “rushed to legitimize a dictator” by holding dialogue, and advocating ending talks until Pyongyang first made unilateral concessions toward denuclearization.
He notably referred to dialogue as a “reward” for North Korea rather than a means for resolving issues. This approach is widely considered an absolute non-starter by the majority of Korea analysts, particularly considering how much stronger Pyongyang’s position is today relative to what it had been during the Obama years.
Biden further strongly advocated unprovoked attacks on Korean targets to prevent the country from further developing its long-range missile capability, which if acted on could mean the initiation of war in response to the mere act of testing weapons.
His stated positions led to comparisons of Biden’s hard line as “virtually indistinguishable” from that of the policy hawk best known for taking blunt hard-line positions: John Bolton.
Indeed, in his first presidential debate with Donald Trump in September 2020, Biden even likened Trump’s development of more positive relations with Pyongyang to the appeasement of Nazi Germany before the Second World War.
Biden’s positions were far from outstanding within the Democratic Party, with other frontrunners for the presidency expressing very similar hardline views indicating a likely worsening of relations relative to the Trump years, no matter who won the nomination.
Hillary Clinton, having overseen a serious escalation in tensions as Obama’s secretary of state, notably referred to the Trump administration’s moves toward a deal with Pyongyang as putting “lipstick on a pig,” with moves toward dialogue and diplomacy firmly rejected throughout the party.
Despite these factors, the stated positions of Biden and other party members do not totally exclude the possibility of détente under the new administration. With the Donald Trump administration facing highly unfavorable media coverage in the United States and the wider Western world, there was considerable political capital to be gained from criticizing and distancing oneself from its policies particularly leading up to a presidential election.
Moreover, with the stances on North Korea expressed by Biden indicating an identical policy to the Obama years, there is a significant possibility that as a candidate he was simply picking up where he had left off as vice president and had not been made fully aware of the situation and the need for a change in policy.
By the end of 2017 the U.S. had sanctioned essentially everything that could be sanctioned and applied as much military pressure as possible short of starting a war. With North Korea having endured this pressure while keeping prices for basic goods entirely stable, and while strengthening its defenses considerably in the meantime and vastly extending the reach and power of its strategic deterrent, U.S. policy options were extremely limited by the end of Trump’s first year and are even more so today.
With the Korean side having continued to mass-produce previously tested strategic missile designs since 2017 alongside associated nuclear warheads, its deterrent had only grown stronger in parallel to a rapid modernization of its conventional forces.
While the Biden administration has some options to escalate pressure on Pyongyang, namely by increasing pressure on third parties such as China to downgrade economic ties and more strictly enforce Western-drafted UN sanctions on the country, North Korea’s options for counter-escalation are arguably much greater still. As of 2021 nine countries are known to possess nuclear weapons, four of which acquired them outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty including North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel.
While all four of these conduct tests of strategic nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, the U.S. and its Western allies have unilaterally deemed North Korean weapons tests alone to be unacceptable. The reasons for this relate to the fact that, while the other three powers conduct tests aimed primarily at other non-Western states – namely China, India and Iran respectively – only Korean strategic missile tests are aimed at restraining Western military action and limiting the United States and its allies’ ability to shape the world through military force.
As a result of the U.S. and the wider Western world arbitrarily deeming any Korean strategic missile test to be a provocation and unacceptable, Pyongyang has considerable room to highlight Washington’s inability to respond by conspicuously testing these weapons, which is an approach that has yielded dividends for decades.
On October 10th North Korea unveiled a yet unnamed new class of intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM), which is the largest road-mobile missile in the world and is thought to be capable of carrying multiple warheads.
As with all new missiles it will need to be test-fired at some stage, meaning that its unveiling shortly before a new administration comes to power after an almost three-year pause in ICBM tests could be interpreted as a warning regarding the potential consequences should the Biden administration move away from Trump’s policy of conciliation and diplomacy. The new missile will likely not be the first one tested should relations deteriorate, with North Korea fielding over half a dozen modern ballistic missile classes from the short, medium and intermediate ranges which could be tested first to increase pressure and if needed to build up to an ICBM test.
Longer ranged missiles capable of striking more U.S. targets will cause more embarrassment to an administration unable to respond to them, which gives Pyongyang options to gradually ramp up pressure. This could be seen to some extent from 2019, after the failure of the Hanoi summit meeting with President Trump in February, when North Korea gradually sought to apply some limited pressure without derailing talks entirely, and so conducted multiple tests of new tactical short-range ballistic missiles such as the hypersonic KN-23.
Aside from further escalating information warfare efforts, and placing pressure on South Korea to do the same, the Biden administration has no serious options for escalation against which Pyongyang is not well prepared to retaliate.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the administration will seek to escalate pressure regardless, or whether it will enter the White House aware of what the Trump administration had realized in early 2018 – that options other than negotiations are extremely limited. The former case would likely see the Biden White House forced back to the negotiating table relatively quickly by Korean weapons tests, particularly considering that attention which can be devoted to Korea over a long period are relatively limited due to foreign policy concerns across much of the rest of the world, from Russia to Venezuela among others.
The latter option could potentially see the administration, which has much more support from the country’s foreign policy establishment and from other Western allies, reach some form of deal for mutual concessions. This could involve a pledge to cease strategic missile tests, and possibly allow for international inspections of some nuclear facilities to ensure cessation of production of new warheads, in exchange for a lifting of the latest rounds of UN sanctions imposed in 2017, 2016 and possibly 2013 as well. The mutual trust needed to take a possible agreement beyond these stages, however, most likely will not exist.
Early signs from the Biden administration indicate that a renewed hard line against Pyongyang and a new cycle of escalation are likely. On February 22nd White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters that the administration planned to work with allies to deter North Korea, which was followed two days later by a pledge by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that the United States would work with Japan towards not only stripping North Korea of its nuclear arsenal, but also of all kinds of ballistic missiles in its inventory.
This was an unprecedentedly hard line not seen since 2017, with Trump administration officials having repeatedly stated that they were not concerned with North Korean ballistic missiles other than those which could reach the U.S. mainland, and having notably refrained from condemning shorter ranged missile tests.
North Korea has possessed ballistic missiles since the late 1970s and the possibility of it surrendering what it sees even more so than nuclear weapons as a key guarantee against further Western attacks is effectively non-existent.
While in the final three years of the Trump administration an understanding appeared to have been reached that concessions from Pyongyang would include only partial limitations on its nuclear and missile arsenals, Biden’s administration has shown early signs of reverting to the extreme hard line of the Obama years which will not be conducive to further negotiations.
The Biden administration has no real alternative to negotiations to handle North Korea, but much depends on whether it will realize this from the outset, or whether a new cycle of escalation and de-escalation as was seen under Clinton, Bush and Trump will need to again occur before the White House agrees to return to the negotiating table.
Much will also depend on factors relating to third parties, such as U.S. relations with China, Russia or Iran which are considered its three other “great power adversaries” alongside Korea, as a need to place greater pressure on one of them could provide an impetus to reach a deal with Pyongyang more quickly.
The George W. Bush years and the costs of the Iraq and Afghan campaigns provided a prime example of this, and placed Washington under pressure to quickly make an unofficial deal with Pyongyang to allow it to focus on the Muslim world. Conversely, lower tensions with other adversaries could provide the Biden administration an incentive to take a harder line against Pyongyang and attempt to place greater strain on its economy and its defenses over time.
There is much uncertainty regarding the course which relations could take, particularly considering that the relationship is not purely a bilateral one, with U.S. relations with other powers and with China in particular expected to strongly influence how the 70-year-long U.S.-North Korea conflict will evolve.
A. B. Abrams’ latest book on North Korea’s conflict with the U.S., entitled Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power (Clarity Press, 2020), was recently reviewed by CovertAction Magazine.
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About the Author
A.B. Abrams is author of Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power (Atlanta: Clarity Press Inc., 2020). Proficient in Chinese, Korean and other East Asian languages, Abrams has spent much time in North Korea, studied the Korean language at the university in Pyongyang, and has many contacts with Koreans inside the DPRK and overseas. This has allowed him to form a deeper understanding of the country’s society, ideology and culture.