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Growing Uncertainties surrounding the Korean Peninsula and Implications for South Korea and Japan

Eunjung LIM (Kongju National University)

President-elect Joe Biden’s transition office put the banner of ‘Restoring American Leadership,’ and Biden chose Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan as his first Secretary of State and White House’s national security advisor, respectively. Both have extensive experiences in the field of foreign affairs; Blinken is a veteran diplomat and was former Deputy Secretary of State during the Barak Obama administration, and Jake Sullivan is known as one of the closest to Hillary Clinton, the 67th U.S. Secretary of State, and he served as deputy assistant to the president under the Obama administration. The Biden’s new foreign policy team is expected to prioritize American values such as freedom, justice, and rule of law together with alliance, international partnerships, and global governance regimes. It is too early to predict the Biden administration’s foreign policies because the new administration will need a quite long time to establish detailed policies for foreign affairs mainly because of America’s disastrous situation by COVID-19 pandemic followed by economic difficulties. However, it is still necessary to think about possible changes with the new administration and prepare in advance.

   Here in this article, therefore, I will briefly analyze the current situations of North Korea that has been cautiously silent about the election result and share my view on the prospect of the Biden administration’s North Korea policies. Based on the analysis, I will make some policy recommendations for South Korea and Japan, America’s East Asian allies, for the upcoming year.


North Korea’s Situations


In the year of 2020, North Korea’s already bad economic situation because of tough economic sanctions was further devastated by self-lock down due to a fear of COVID-19 pandemic and massive flooding damages by record-breaking heavy rains and typhoons. Trade with China fell into almost zero, which must have restricted supply of daily necessaries such as flour and starch, sugar, and medicines. As the pandemic lasts much longer than expected, the border closures severely damaged North Korea’s markets (Jamadang) and people’s daily lives. The National Committee on North Korea (NCNK), an American NGO focusing on North Korean issues, recently published a special report, Understanding U.S. and International Sanctions on North Korea, and reported that “state-sponsored smuggling and trade with China appeared to come to a halt after North Korea announced its lockdown, gradually resuming in subsequent months before border controls tightened once again in late July.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un repeatedly visited a flood-hit village in North Hamgyong Province and tried to show his compassion to victims and leadership for quick restoration. North Korea is now preparing for the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) to be held in January 2021, and in the middle of the ‘80-day battle’ to make some economic achievements until the 8th Congress of WPK.

Human Rights

Arguably, the biggest problem of North Korea is human rights violations. Under the pandemic, it looks like lockdown and quarantine worsened the situation. On December 11, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) had a virtual discussion on human rights abuses in North Korea after the issue was raised by seven members of UNSC including Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Estonia, the United States, and the Dominican Republic. The seven council member states joined by Japan later accused Pyongyang of using the pandemic “to crack down further on the human rights of its own people,” and explicitly wrote that North Korea’s human rights violations “pose an imminent threat to international peace and security” in their official statement while Russia and China having their negative views on releasing a public briefing on the situation. Many public health experts reveal their deep concerns on North Korea’s poor health care system, and they warn that lockdown made the public health situation in North Korea worse than ever.


The socio-economic situation in North Korea seems tragic and international criticism on human rights abuses is also getting tougher. Nonetheless, I do not think the Kim Jong Un regime will collapse soon. Experts on North Korea who live in the free world tend to project their views and beliefs that were formed in their free world. However, the birth of North Korea itself was fundamentally different from many other countries in the rest of the world, and the regime has shown its remarkable resilience over decades. In addition, Kim Jong Un’s leadership has been evolving. The October 10’s Military Parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of WPK was another good showcase that presents the regime’s nature as a ‘Theatre State’ and Kim Jong Un performed his role as the ‘dearest leader’ very effectively. After watching the parade, Stephan Haggard (a distinguished Korea expert and Professor of University of California San Diego) shared his observation in his article published by Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI), “North Korea’s October 10 Parade.” Haggard wrote North Korea is “a personalist regime and in Kim’s speech he used populist appeals that bear a family resemblance to those of autocrats elsewhere…. We would not have seen this kind of approach—let alone the open emotionalism—from Kim Jong-il; a new populist governing style is clearly at work.”


Biden’s North Korea Policies


Many analysists predict that the Biden’s approach to North Korea will be different from the Trump’s approach known as a top-down or a ‘personalized’ summit diplomacy. This analysis looks persuasive so far because the Biden administration will bring back many specialists and intellectuals who were disregarded by the Trump administration or voluntarily ignorant to the administration’s top-down approach to North Korea. Kent Calder (a longtime Asia specialist and Professor of Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS) explored Washington’s ‘penumbra of power’ composed by mass media, think tanks, knowledge industries, consulting firms, NGOs, lobbyists and many other powerful players in his book, Asia in Washington. If these players raise their voices and strengthen their influences on the new administration, it will be very difficult to expect the White House to have another summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.


Whether the Biden administration will take an incrementalism approach to North Korea or not is another big question to many North Korea watchers. Some argue that the Biden’s approach will be based on norms and principles; Biden harshly criticized Trump by saying that Trump has “legitimized North Korea, he’s talked about his good buddy, who’s a thug, a thug.” However, many others are willing to remain optimistic; Biden mentioned that he will meet with the North Korean leader only when Kim agrees to reduce the nuclear capabilities of the North and said, “The Korean Peninsula should be a nuclear-free zone.”

These optimists highlight the fact that Blinken and Sullivan, two of the key persons in charge of Biden’s foreign policies, were the architects of JCOPA with Iran, and their pragmatism and incremental approach can work again for solving the North Korea’s nuclear problem. Victor Cha (Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Professor at Georgetown University) criticized that ‘all-the-weapons-for-all-the-sanctions’ deal the Trump administration pursued resulted in a failure in Hanoi and argued that a completely new approach is required in his recent article, “Engaging North Korea Anew” published by Foreign Affairs. Cha now suggests the US to focus on the short-term aim of freezing North Korea’s nuclear program. According to the 2020 Yearbook published by The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the number of North Korea’s nuclear warheads is estimated between 30 and 40. If it goes higher while the negotiations halted, the cost of restarting the negotiations will go further. The Biden administration might be interested in taking a ‘bold political strategy’ toward resuming the negotiations as Cha suggested.

North Korea First?

It looks like that a pragmatic and realistic approach gets more attention in Washington now, which can be good news for the Moon Jae In administration and people who support the Peace Process of the Korean Peninsula. Rather, a real concern is about the Biden administration’s prioritization. The new administration needs to and is urged to focus on solving domestic problems such as COVID-19 outbreak, political polarization and increasing mutual hatreds, and economic recession. In the field of foreign affairs, Washington needs to restore the relationships with its European partners, which is evaluated as worst due to Trump’s unilateralism. Situations in Middle East are not friendly to the new government either. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist, was recently killed by a remote-control weapon, and Iran believes Israel and an exiled opposition group did so. As the tension between Iran and Israel goes high, how to manage future risks in Middle East is likely to be a top agenda of the new administration. South Koreans’ main concern is that North Korea can cause another high-level provocation(s) aiming for attention from Washington soon after the administration inaugurated, and which can freeze a possibility for future negotiations.


Policy Recommendations for South Korea and Japan

Having had the analysis above, it would be fair to say that the year of 2021, especially the first half of the year, is likely to be full of uncertainties surrounding North Korea-related issues. Pyongyang’s offensive behaviors have been always problematic, but Washington’s limitations until having its fully-fledged North Korea policies can add more uncertainties. In the middle of these uncertainties and potential risks, the relationship between America’s two East Asian allies is still in a stalemate, which adds extra uncertainties.

What needs to be done between South Korea and Japan for the upcoming year is, therefore, quiet diplomacy for reducing uncertainties, managing existing risks, and hopefully restoring mutual trust. First and foremost, South Korea and Japan should work together on solving the wartime forced labor compensation issue as soon as possible. Both Seoul and Tokyo need to make serious political commitment and persuade their own people. Second, South Korea should cooperate closely with International Olympics Committee and the host country, Japan, to help the Tokyo Olympics safely held. Third, South Korea and Japan need to have more dialogues and conversations to understand each other’s views on the Peace Process on the Korean Peninsula. Certainly, there are some cognitive dissonances and perception gaps between Seoul and Tokyo regarding the Peace Process. One of the bitter lessons from the so-called ‘No Deal in Hanoi’ is that Tokyo can be a veto player in the negotiation process. Seoul should admit this reality and needs to listen more carefully to Tokyo’s voices, and Tokyo should be more forward-looking when facing North Korea-related issues.


Author’s Bio

Eunjung LIM is an Associate Professor at the Division of International Studies, Kongju National University (KNU). Her areas of specialization include international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, comparative and global governance, and energy, nuclear, and climate change policies of East Asian countries. She currently serves as member of the Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Unification and a non-standing director of Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control (KINAC). 

Before joining the KNU faculty, Dr. Lim served as an Assistant Professor at College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto, Japan. She also taught at several universities in the United States and Korea, including Johns Hopkins University, Yonsei University, and Korea University. She has been a researcher and a visiting fellow at academic institutes including the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies at Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the University of Tokyo, the Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul National University, the Institute of Japan Studies at Kookmin University, and Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.  

She earned a B.A. from the University of Tokyo, an M.I.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.