Dec 28, 2021 - World

Biden may face a North Korea crisis within months

Kim Jong-un with his finger near the button (at a demolition site in Pyongyang). Photo: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

It may not be long before President Biden has to grapple with a North Korea crisis.

The big picture: Dictator Kim Jong-un has remained relatively quiet during Biden's presidency so far, keeping his threats and missile testing well below the “fire and fury” levels of the early Trump administration. But a quieter North Korea is not necessarily a less dangerous one.

What to watch: Kim could force his way onto Biden’s agenda in 2022 through a major provocation, a charm offensive, or a combination of the two, potentially ahead of the South Korean election in March, says Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and formerly the CIA's deputy division chief for Korea.

The state of play: Biden administration officials say they’ve proposed talks, but the North Koreans aren’t engaging.

  • North Korea, meanwhile, conducted missile tests in 2021, but not on a level that rings global alarm bells. Kim has still yet to test a nuclear weapon or inter-continental ballistic missile since 2017, but he did show off advanced new missiles at a military parade last January.
  • With Pyongyang spurning diplomacy but limiting its provocations, Biden has essentially been in wait-and-see mode.

Kim, who succeeded his father 10 years ago this month, promised his people dual development of the economy as well as the military and nuclear program. Still, North Korea’s weaponry has advanced much more rapidly than its economy over the past decade.

  • Kim was unusually candid, by Pyongyang’s standards, in acknowledging “tense” food supply issues last June after shutting down nearly all trade, even with neighboring China, to keep the coronavirus out.
  • It’s difficult to gauge the depth of North Korea’s food crisis, though some low-level trade seems to be resuming. North Korea’s path out of the pandemic will be rocky, as Kim has spurned offers of vaccines.

The intrigue: Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in largely bet his presidency on improved relations with North Korea, and is searching for a win before stepping down.

  • Moon is pushing for a declaration to mark the end of the Korean War, but the North Koreans haven’t agreed and the Biden administration appears lukewarm to the proposal.

"We may have a February or March surprise before the South Korean election if Kim wants to increase the potential for a progressive president to succeed Moon," Klingner says.

  • That could include a summit on the sidelines of the Beijing Olympics, a bilateral meeting with Moon or a trilateral meeting involving China but excluding the U.S., he adds.

The relative quiet on the missile-testing front could suggest Kim really believes (as he has said) that his nuclear and ICBM programs are complete.

  • Or, given the border closures, Kim could be saving any steps designed to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table on favorable terms for a time when North Korean envoys are actually able to travel to a negotiating table, Klingner says.

What to watch: Biden has no plans for Trump-style presidential engagement with Kim. Given the difficulties of dealing with China, Russia and Iran, he may see no news on the North Korea file as good news.

  • But Pyongyang’s pattern of behavior would suggest that the quiet isn't likely to last.
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