TOKYO — As world leaders congratulated Joe Biden on his election win over the weekend, a long-standing U.S. adversary remained conspicuously silent.
Pyongyang’s reticence isn’t surprising: The nuclear-armed, one-party state is not inclined to highlight political freedoms available in other countries. But there are reasons to believe the mood in Pyongyang is glum this week, and that Kim might be preparing his trigger finger for a new cycle of missile or nuclear testing.
Biden, after all, called Kim a “thug” during the second presidential debate, and implicitly compared him to Adolf Hitler. Last November, after similar comments from the former vice president, North Korea’s state media called Biden “a rabid dog” who should be beaten to death.
President Trump claims to have enjoyed a “special friendship” with Kim, but there is no love lost between America’s president-elect and North Korea’s dictator.
“They are going to be very unhappy,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, referring to the regime.
Unlike former president Barack Obama, Trump held direct talks with North Korea — he met with Kim three times to discuss nuclear disarmament — and there was a slim but real chance of a diplomatic deal with Pyongyang if Trump had won a second term, Lankov said. “But Biden is just going to kick the can down the road,” he said.
Biden served in an Obama administration that through most of its eight years did not engage directly with North Korea, instead pursuing a policy of “strategic patience” that left Pyongyang out in the cold, but also left it to its own devices to develop its nuclear and missile arsenal.
As Biden prepares to take office, experience suggests Kim is likely to test the new U.S. administration, perhaps by resuming the long-range missile or nuclear tests he suspended under Trump.
“North Korea has historically ramped up tensions early in a new U.S. and South Korean administration to, in the words of a North Korean defector, ‘train them like a dog’ and induce concessions,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Last month, North Korea showed off a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile at a military parade in Pyongyang, and experts wonder when a test might take place. Others point to North Korea’s second nuclear test on May 25, 2009, four months after Obama took office.
“Such blatant violations of U.N. resolutions could be one of the Biden administration’s first foreign policy crises,” Klingner said.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea open source intelligence analyst for the U.S. government, said she doesn’t expect any moves before a North Korean party congress in early January. But the regime will be watching Washington’s moves and recalibrating its policy accordingly, with a weapons test possible after Biden takes office, she said.
North Korea is thought to have 40 to 60 nuclear weapons, and claims to be able to deliver warheads to the continental United States on its existing ICBMs — although experts are unsure if it has the capability to miniaturize warheads and mount them on missiles. But Kim has stressed that his arsenal is only meant as a deterrent and insurance against foreign attack.
John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul who studies China and the Korean Peninsula, said a debate is probably already underway in Pyongyang between those who want to give the new Biden administration time, and those who will be impatient to launch a missile “to get ourselves on the radar” of the new administration and provoke a response.
But Delury is more optimistic than some about the prospects for a renewed diplomatic process, arguing that Biden has a better chance of forging bipartisan consensus on North Korea.
Trump, he said, had pursued engagement with Kim as a solo venture, but never carried the security establishment with him — or even his national security adviser, John Bolton. When a quick deal proved impossible, the U.S. president got distracted and the process fell apart.
“The North Koreans have been screaming from the rooftops that a good relationship with Donald Trump doesn’t fix our problem, that what they want is a different relationship with the United States of America,” Delury added. “They want Joe Biden because they need the United States to come around, not just Donald Trump.”
Biden has said he favors “principled diplomacy,” but that he will only meet with Kim if North Korea “is drawing down its nuclear capacity.”
But after the stalemate of the Obama years, Delury said Biden’s team would need to be creative and not revert to an approach that failed to deliver.
South Korea’s center-left government, eager to revive the stalled diplomacy with its neighbor, also hopes Biden’s win might provide a spark. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters in Washington on Sunday that a Biden win is “not a snapback to the ‘strategic patience’ ” of the Obama administration.
But Kookmin University’s Lankov is not confident.
He said the U.S. security establishment and public are not ready for the only sort of deal North Korea is offering: One in which the country would retain its nuclear weapons but trade some form of restraint and containment for an end to sanctions and isolation.
That implies four more years during which North Korea could build its arsenal and perhaps develop a solid-fuel ICBM that would threaten the continental United States.
“By the end of every single U.S. president’s term, they have been in a worse situation than at the beginning of the term,” Lankov said, referring to the rising North Korean threat.
“Neither of Barack Obama’s terms nor Donald Trump’s term have been an exception, and most likely Joe Biden is not going to become an exceptional president.”
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.