US President Joe Biden tackles almost the same foreign policy tasks that his predecessor Donald Trump did. The democrat continues to pursue a line of confrontation with China, is looking for a way to return to a nuclear deal with Iran, and also negotiates with Russia on Ukraine and NATO. However, Biden inherited another unresolved issue from Trump – the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, which, judging by recent events, could become a new headache for the American leader.
Most likely, this year Biden will have to seriously tackle the situation on the Korean Peninsula, from which his administration has largely kept aloof. The DPRK’s nuclear missile arsenal remains one of America’s biggest foreign policy challenges and threats.
The latest tests by the DPRK have confirmed the need for Washington to establish a dialogue with Pyongyang. First of all, because the North Korean launches are of concern to the US allies in the region – South Korea and Japan. They also directly threaten American military bases located in these countries. In addition, after two years of silence, the North Korean military has made some progress in developing new weapons, which undoubtedly only raises the stakes.
Since the beginning of the year, the DPRK has already conducted three tests, including hypersonic weapons
The launches took place on January 5 and 11 , the flight of an unknown rocket was reported on January 14. The incidents showed that Pyongyang is engaged in increasingly complex development. Unlike ballistic missiles, which follow a predictable trajectory, hypersonic missiles can travel close to the surface of the earth and hit a target in a much shorter flight time.
This greatly complicates the ability of air defense systems to intercept such charges. Of particular concern is the fact that, in theory, the DPRK can supply its missiles with nuclear warheads, which poses a serious threat. True, for now, experts believe that this year the DPRK has tested only technically simplified versions of hypersonic weapons.
Against the background of new launches, the UN expressed concern and warned that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could deteriorate at any moment, since there are no negotiations between Pyongyang and the world community.
The United States, Albania, Britain, Ireland, France and Japan issued a joint statement in which they called on the DPRK to abandon its missile program and begin negotiations on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Because of its nuclear missile program, the DPRK is under international UN sanctions
These measures include an embargo on all major export goods of the country. The accounts of the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank remain frozen, and North Korean ships that violated UN resolutions are prohibited from entering the ports of all states. Periodically, new sanctions are imposed on individuals associated with Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs.
Due to international sanctions, the DPRK is experiencing a serious economic crisis. South Korea’s Central Bank estimates that the country’s economy contracted 3.5% in 2017 and 4.1% in 2018. In 2019, growth recovered slightly, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pyongyang was forced to go even deeper into isolation. In 2020, the DPRK’s economy contracted again by 4.5%. Despite this, North Korea continues to develop its military capabilities, test and demonstrate new weapons.
Former US President Donald Trump was actively involved in the problem of the Korean Peninsula
Initially, he threatened the DPRK leader Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury”, but later personally met with him three times and called him “a nice guy.”
Following their first summit in 2018 in Singapore, the DPRK committed itself to nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for security guarantees from the United States. And although further attempts to move in this direction did not lead to anything, the dialogue with Pyongyang remained on the agenda of the White House. In addition, after three launches of ICBMs in 2017, the DPRK no longer tested weapons that could potentially threaten US territory.
Biden’s administration decided to change its approach to the DPRK
The new president’s team did not attach too much importance to the problem of the Korean Peninsula. The topic began to figure only in Washington’s negotiations with Seoul and Tokyo. That is, in fact, it has become a regional rather than a global issue. Washington said it took into account past mistakes and does not want to repeat them.
President Biden has expressed his willingness to speak with Kim Jong-un, but under certain conditions, which imply that the North Korean leader is taking certain steps. Moreover, he called the North Korean leader a “villain” and noted that the relaxation of sanctions should only follow nuclear disarmament.
“It depends on North Korea whether it wants to cooperate on this basis,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
The DPRK topic could be a new challenge for Biden
Bruce Klingner, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former deputy head of the CIA’s Korea division, told Axios that the increased frequency of missile launches could be some kind of signal that Kim Jong-un is sending to Washington .
“Kim [Jong-un] can break into Biden’s agenda as early as 2022 with the help of a major provocation, threats, or all taken together. This could potentially happen on the eve of the March elections in South Korea,” the expert said.
At the same time, as noted by the BBC, the United States has allegedly tried to get in touch with Pyongyang, but stumbled upon the reluctance of the North Korean side to conduct a dialogue. The answer did not even come through the so-called New York channel, which is called the North Korean mission to the UN.
Back in early 2021, the DPRK authorities indicated that “if the United States does not abandon its hostile policy, then no Korean-American negotiations will be able to take place.” The “hostile policy” meant joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea.
The White House will have to find a solution
Moreover, Kim Jong-un warns that he is determined to further strengthen the country’s defense and develop weapons.
After the last launches of the DPRK, the White House noted that the missile tests violate the UN Security Council resolutions and pose a threat to the international community. Washington proposed to introduce UN sanctions against several individuals and organizations associated, in the opinion of the Americans, with the DPRK’s missile program. Among them is a citizen of the Russian Federation.
At the same time, it is obvious that these measures cannot radically change the situation. The DPRK still continues to develop, even in a deep crisis. Another thing is that the country is unlikely to be able to start a full-fledged war or aggression. Most likely, the North Korean launches are some kind of statements made by the Pyongyang leadership. It can be both calls for negotiations and a way to show that the country is protected from military aggression.
The negotiations can be especially useful against the background of the change of power in South Korea, where the president of the republic, Moon Jae-in, is leaving his post. This politician will be remembered as a supporter of a peaceful dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang. He personally met with Kim Jong-un and proposed various initiatives to develop relations between the two countries. This approach was often criticized by other South Korean political forces inclined to a more rigid course. Nevertheless, by the summer, South Korea will have a new president and, consequently, a new policy towards Pyongyang. All this can lead to certain changes, including in the behavior of the DPRK.
Be that as it may, the United States is unlikely to be able to further avoid the topic of the Korean Peninsula. Washington will have to closely monitor the situation in the region in order to guarantee the safety of its allies and to respond more actively to the actions of the North Korean authorities.