New tests in 2022. On 14 January, North Korea issued a warning to the international community following further sanctions by the United States in response to Pyongyang’s latest test of a hypersonic ballistic missile: ‘If the United States adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will have no choice but to adopt a certain and stronger reaction,’ the message said. On 15 January, North Korea confirmed it had launched another ballistic missile from a train in what was read as an apparent retaliation against new sanctions imposed by the US.
In May 2021, a month after Japanese Prime Minister Suga’s visit to Washington, South Korean President Moon Jae In’s visit gained little international attention, and this is hardly surprising. After two years of deadlock following the solemn fiasco of the Hanoi Summit in February 2019 between President Donald Trump and the leader of the DPRK Kim Jong Un (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), relations between the US and South Korea seem to be back on course. North Korea, which meanwhile has strengthened its nuclear arsenal. Biden’s invitation to the two Asian leaders indicates the US’ prevailing interest in the Eastern Asian area. There is a widespread obsession for China as a ‘strategic competitor’ in leading economic and technological sectors, including artificial intelligence. First guest of the White House was Japanese Premier Yoshihide Suga. The military alliance between Washington and Tokyo dated 1951 and later revised and extended, remains the cornerstone of American policy in Asia. In May, Moon arrived in Washington, just after the new US administration’s policy had finished its review of the complicated Korean dossier.
Biden clearly strayed from Trump’s positions. He is ready to open a direct channel with the Northern Regime and start consultations with South Korean and Japanese governments. Unlike Trump, he kept the negotiations under wraps. The long and detailed joint press release issued at the end of Moon’s visit covered all issues relating to American policy in the Asia-Pacific area (environment, technologies, global health, etc.).
As for politics, Biden seems to have understood the mistakes of past administrations in the Korean peninsula by taking into account Moon’s overall plan, which requires autonomy in negotiations with North Korea, regardless of the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. Biden seems willing to comply with his requests. He will not adopt either Obama’s formula of “strategic patience” (doing nothing) or Trump’s “maximum pressure” (that is, increasingly heavy unilateral sanctions). Rather, he is willing to follow a “balanced and realistic” approach that is flexible and open to dialogue. Moon has ensured diplomatic talks with the DPRK to start with commitments made in 2018 Panmunjon Inter-Korean Declaration as well as in the Singapore joint statement issued at the end of the first Trump-Kim summit, aimed to achieve “complete denuclearization” and “permanent peace” in the peninsula. Above all, he has obtained the “President’s support” for inter-Korean dialogue, which allows promoting cooperation projects promised by Moon to Kim during the summits in 2018.
In other words, the President would allow Moon to continue to improve inter-Korean relations regardless of the course of the negotiations with Pyongyang. As a result, Biden will remove part of the unilateral sanctions imposed by Trump that are burdening the Northern population, currently exhausted by hermetic anti-Covid closure, which had the effect of isolating Pyongyang and cutting essential economic relations with China. Again, the possibilities for derailment are manifold. It is clear that Kim Jong Un did not definitively close the door to negotiations but threw the ball into the opposing field. It is up to the new administration to demonstrate its political will to establish concrete reciprocity measures.
After the Hanoi disaster, Kim realised that the outcome does not change, whoever the tenant of the White House is. He will definitely not give up the required security issues and, at least initially, the reduction of joint military operations in South Korea, operations perceived by the Regime as a preparation for invasion and his overthrowal (see end of Saddam and Gaddafi). Another stumbling block is the extension of consultations in a trilateral commission in Tokyo, with relations between Japan and Korea at their lowest due to many unsolved historical issues clashing against the wall of contemptuous denial of the Japanese conservatives in power for many years. Biden would have to convince his loyal ally not to hinder negotiations with Pyongyang, to avoid priority being given to the Japanese citizen kidnappings in the 1970s-80s – an issue that could be addressed separately and not in the negotiations on the future of the Korean peninsula. For time being, China has not taken any actions, but its replacement of its ambassador to Korea with an experienced career diplomat indicates a far-sighted vision, while waiting to use the Korean issue as a lever to start negotiations with the US. For Moon, time is running out. There is only one year left until the end of his non-repeatable five-year period. He has little time to make sure that (as already happened in the past), the potential election of a conservative president in Seoul does not erase with a stroke of the pen the commitment to detente and peace.