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Biden’s first foreign-policy challenge could be North Korea testing a nuclear weapon or an ICBM, experts say

Kim Jong Un arrives in Lang Son, Vietnam, on Feb. 26, 2019, for a summit with President Trump. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)
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Despite “fire and fury” rhetoric and a trio of presidential summits, President Trump is leaving office without fulfilling his promise to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear threat. Yet even though Kim Jong Un refused to stop building bombs and missiles, the North Korean leader did become quieter about it.

In the 2½ years since the first summit, in Singapore, Kim expanded his nuclear stockpile and fielded powerful new missiles, including a 75-foot-long behemoth that was paraded through central Pyongyang in October. But Kim, who beguiled Trump with flattering letters and elaborately staged photo-ops, refrained from the kinds of provocative weapons tests that might trigger a harsh U.S. response.

Now, with Trump’s impending departure, U.S. analysts fear a return to more brazen North Korean behavior, perhaps in the earliest days of the new administration. North Korean leaders have shown a penchant for provoking crises with newly elected U.S. presidents, and many analysts think that President-elect Joe Biden’s term could start literally with a bang — either a new North Korean nuclear test, or the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or both.

Such a crisis could present Biden with the first major foreign-policy challenge of his presidency. If it happens, his advisers will be holding a weaker hand, and confronting a more dangerous adversary, than when Trump took office four years ago, according to former U.S. officials and experts on North Korea.

“President-elect Joe Biden will find that diplomacy on North Korea has at best floundered under Trump,” Victor Cha, the top adviser on North Korea to the George W. Bush administration and a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, wrote in a post-election essay in Foreign Affairs magazine. “Made-for-TV summits have accomplished little beyond allowing North Korea to expand and deepen its nuclear weapons arsenal.”

Trump, who after the Singapore summit in June 2018 declared on Twitter that “there is no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea, ultimately was unable to persuade Kim to give up any of his nuclear bombs, missiles or weapons factories. And although he continued to pressure Kim with economic sanctions, enforcement of the measures by North Korea’s most powerful neighbors — China and Russia — has diminished since Trump began his unusual personal diplomacy with Kim.

Previously, the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” doctrine was similarly unsuccessful in halting North Korea’s pursuit of more powerful weapons.

Now, as Trump fades, so do Kim’s reasons for self-imposed restraint. Former U.S. officials say Kim will almost certainly try to reset the terms of his relationship with Washington in the coming months with new military provocations. Among other options, he may decide to test the new missile, dubbed the Hwasong 16, that North Korea displayed on Oct. 10.

Although little is known about the weapon, its massive size suggests an intercontinental range and ability to carry multiple nuclear warheads. North Korea has previously launched two different ICBMs that experts deemed capable of striking cities on the U.S. mainland. Kim may also decide to conduct a nuclear weapons test for the first time since 2017, when he exploded what experts think was a hydrogen bomb.

Biden’s policies on foreign relations

By rekindling fears of a nuclear war, Kim may calculate that he can extract more favorable terms from the United States and its allies in future negotiations, including relief from economic sanctions and de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-weapons power, former officials and experts say.

The incoming Biden team possesses advantages, including numerous experienced former officials and diplomats who have managed previous crises with North Korea. Notably, many have worked closely in the past with key U.S. allies in the region, including South Korea and Japan, and have long-standing personal relationships in both capitals.

After weathering whatever crises Pyongyang may initially provoke, the Biden administration is expected to utilize these relationships in pressuring Kim to accept an interim freeze in nuclear production and missile testing. A temporary halt, which North Korea accepted during the presidencies of Bush and Bill Clinton, could set the stage for a hoped-for multilateral deal that would reduce or eliminate Kim’s nuclear stockpile in exchange for reductions in economic sanctions.

But time is of the essence, analysts warn. As Kim becomes more confident in his nuclear deterrent, persuading him to accept concessions will only become more difficult.

“The Biden administration will find itself with less bargaining power than Trump had, given the impressive progress North Korea has made in developing nuclear weapons and missiles” since 2018, Sue Mi Terry, a former East Asia analyst at the CIA, said last week in a podcast by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Biden's policies on other topics

Terry said Biden could find a pathway for success by working closely with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose center-left government has sought to improve relations with the North. By contrast, Trump frequently alienated South Koreans by announcing the curtailment of joint military exercises and suggesting that Seoul should pay the United States for its troop presence on the peninsula.

A top priority in any case would be to stop North Korea from carrying out an ICBM test, she said.

“We do not want them to test this Hwasong 16,” Terry said.