U.S. President Donald Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden in the U.S. Presidential election is certainly not good news in Pyongyang. Without a doubt, North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un would prefer to continue the personalist diplomacy by exchanging the “love letters” with Trump rather than having to cope with Biden’s “strategic patience”. Pyongyang has so far kept silent on the result of the U.S. election two weeks after Election Day. In the past, it only took North Korea several days to recognize the winner. In 2008, the country reported former President Barack Obama’s victory two days after the election. In 2012, North Korea mentioned Obama’s re-election three days afterward. When Trump won the election in 2016, North Korea noted the victory two days after.
North Korea’s silence can be attributed to many reasons. Trump has disputed the election results and contested the legitimacy of the election, which makes some countries wait until the results are certified before recognizing the victor. China has held off congratulating Biden until several days ago. Russia, Brazil, and Vietnam have not congratulated Biden either. North Korea may decide to wait in a similar fashion. Also, given that Kim has been a close friend of Trump and the U.S. President still has more than two months left in his term, Kim does not want to recognize Biden’s victory so long as Trump contests it or else he will damage the good relationship with the incumbent president.
Still, other important questions remain: Will North Korea test its nuclear devices or missile in the aftermath of the election like it has done in the past? How will North Korea welcome President Biden into the White House? Will Pyongyang abandon negotiation with the United States due to Biden’s “hardline policy”? A pessimistic assessment of North Korea’s silence would argue that Pyongyang may greet Biden with a bang once the election is certified in Biden’s favor. However, an optimistic take on North Korea’s silence may reason that such silence is an attempt to gauge Biden’s intentions before the new administration reviews its North Korea policy. If Biden shows a commitment to engage with North Korea under a new framework different from Obama’s “strategic patience,” North Korea can refrain from provocations as a goodwill to not undermine U.S.-North Korea relations at the beginning of Biden’s term. There are signs from North Korea that point towards the optimistic assessment.
In the weeks before the election, North Korea demonstrated its restraint by not testing any short-range or medium-range missiles. During the Worker’s Party of Korea Foundation Day parade, North Korea showed off its new intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Analysts warned those missiles would constitute a progress in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal for they can better penetrate the U.S. missile defense systems thanks to launching multiple independent re-entry vehicles. North Korea’s continued developing nuclear and missile technologies will enhance the survivability of North Korea’s nuclear weapons by redundancy. However, it should be noted that despite the current deadlock in denuclearization talks and Pyongyang’s threat to end the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing last year, North Korea still observed its self-imposed moratorium promised with the Trump administration.
North Korea has also tried to defuse tension with South Korea after a summer of provocations. Kim Jong-un issued a rare apology to South Korea in September for the killing of a South Korean citizen and added that the North would take measures to prevent future similar incidents from happening and to prevent inter-Korean “trust and relations of respect” from deteriorating. Remarkably, North Korea is rewriting its policy towards the United States in the aftermath of Biden’s victory. The country is reenergizing its working-level diplomats and preparing for a bottom-up style of negotiation as an attempt to fit with Biden’s preference for working-level talks over summits.
North Korea may opt for a positive relationship with the Biden administration for it needs to focus on domestic issues such as economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters. Additional international sanctions on the country for its provocations will only increase the burden at the moment the country is most vulnerable. North Korea is experiencing one of the most severe economic crises due to a long-term border closure with China. North Korea’s exports to China in March fell 96% compared to March 2019 to just $616,000, and Pyongyang residents reported a huge increase in in food prices and food shortage. This explains why Kim reached out to China on the occasion of China’s participation in the Korean War this year to improve bilateral relations as a mean to help North Korea overcome its economic woes.
North Korea has reasons to hope for sanctions exemptions from Biden. The President-elect’s emphasis on alliance coordination with South Korean President Moon Jae-in may provide more room for Moon to push for the resumption of inter-Korean ventures. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha projected that Biden would not return to “strategic patience” after her conversations with Biden’s advisors. Seoul is wishing to revive the U.S.-North Korea talks before the 2021 Tokyo Olympics similar to how it engaged North Korea at PyeongChang in 2018. Consequently, Pyongyang may want to guard against any uncertainty brought about by a Trump-to-Bien transition by not undermining its relationship with South Korea at this moment. A provocation is simply not a good choice.
Unfortunately, the optimistic signs cannot hide the fact that North Korea’s nuclear program has grown during the past four years under the Trump presidency despite three summits with the U.S. President. There is a good chance that North Korea will engage Biden so long as the President-elect is committed to dialogue. However, it will again seek many sanctions exemptions from the United States in return for a small portion of its nuclear program. If the Biden administration cannot give North Korea what it wants, a continuation of negotiation deadlocks or even worse a return to “fire and fury” is not far off the table. For now, North Korea’s silence and its preparation for working-level talks with the Biden administration is enough for some short-term optimism that Pyongyang has picked dialogue over confrontation.
Khang Vu is a doctoral student in the Political Science Department at Boston College, where he focuses on East Asian politics and nuclear weapons.