On October 10, about two weeks before the final debate between US President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden, North Korea unveiled to cheering crowds at a parade in Pyongyang a new intercontinental ballistic missile that experts say may be the country’s biggest yet.
At the debate, when the moderator asked about North Korea’s powerful and growing arsenal, Trump veered away from the question, asserting that his historic meetings over the previous two years with Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, had prevented a nuclear war with the US.
“We don’t have a war, and I have a good relationship,” Trump said.
“What has he done?” Biden replied. “He’s legitimised North Korea, he’s talked about his good buddy who’s a thug, a thug, and he talks about how we’re better off.”
Two weeks later, Trump lost the election – though neither he nor Kim has publicly acknowledged it – and on January 20, America’s response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons will be up to Joe Biden.
Analysts say his task will be enormous, just as it was for his predecessors, none of whom ever managed to convince Pyongyang to ditch its nuclear weapons.
“The general global environment is not very auspicious,” said Kathleen Stephens, who served as US ambassador to South Korea in the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
“Because North Korea has over the last 20 years steadily increased its nuclear missile arsenal and become more entrenched with its self-assertion of being a nuclear weapons state, I think that some of the approaches that seemed possible in earlier years, even though they didn’t work, really aren’t possible now,” said Stephens, now the president and CEO of the Korea Economic Institute think tank in Washington.
North Korea is estimated to have at least a few dozen nuclear weapons, though the US does not formally acknowledge it as a nuclear weapons state.
This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean war. Pending any last-minute surprises from Trump before Biden takes office, the two countries will still technically be at war.
On November 11, the US Veterans Day holiday, Biden visited the Korean War Memorial in Philadelphia.
Biden has said his goal is a nuclear-free North Korea – also the Trump administration’s stated goal. But no president has achieved it.
Even when Trump and Kim were engaged in their unprecedented personal diplomacy in 2018 and 2019, which came after Trump’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” on the country, the Trump administration said that North Korea was showing no sign it had slowed its production of the weapons.
North Korea has said it will never abandon its nuclear weapons, the ultimate deterrent, as long as the US remains “hostile” to it.
But it does not say what the word “hostile” means, leaving US negotiators guessing what Kim wants: perhaps sanctions relief; or a pause in military drills on the Korean peninsula, which Trump allowed; or the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, which Trump has said he wants.
Analysts are unsure which carrots and which sticks, if any, the Biden administration will use.
“The campaign has talked about finding the right formula of sanctions relief and sanctions enforcement,” said Frank Aum, a former North Korea adviser in the US Defence Department and a senior expert on North Korea at the US Institute of Peace. “I think they’re probably keeping it intentionally vague to maximise their flexibility.”
Jenny Town, deputy director of the North Korea analysis website 38 North and a fellow at the Stimson Centre think tank, said Biden would likely face criticism from all sides no matter what he does, “for either not doing enough or being too eager”.
“The key will be in finding small and early wins in the diplomatic process to show cooperation can be achieved, help weather the ups and downs of diplomacy and begin to placate the critics,” Town said.
One thing Biden has made clear is that he wants to repair the US alliance with South Korea, after Trump’s near-singular focus on how much Seoul was paying the US for its troops and bases there – an issue known in Washington as “burden sharing”.
Biden published an essay celebrating the alliance on South Korea’s biggest news agency days before the election. He spoke with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on November 11, one of his first calls with a foreign leader as president-elect.
Biden has also said he wants to put more pressure on China to enforce United Nations sanctions on North Korea.
Amid the worsening US-China relationship, both Democrats and Republicans have accused Beijing of not doing its part to enforce them. The US government has also accused China of enabling North Korean cybercrimes, which analysts say are bringing a new source of revenue to Pyongyang without the risks that come with traditional smuggling.
And then there is the question of whether Biden would do what Trump did, and shake hands with Kim Jong-un.
Trump has touted those meetings above all else as proof of his success with North Korea, though analysts say the nation had desired a meeting with a US president for years.
At the October 23 debate, Biden said he could meet Kim – but only “on the condition that he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity to get there”.
That will not only be up to Biden, though.
Kim was said to have been badly embarrassed after his second summit with Trump, in Hanoi in early 2019. Analysts say all of the diplomatic momentum the two leaders had going into that meeting disappeared when they failed to reach a deal on sanctions relief, which North Korea wanted, or denuclearisation, which the US wanted.
And that was before the coronavirus pandemic began in neighbouring China, which led North Korea to shut down its borders for months. Pyongyang’s trade and economy appear to have slowed to a crawl.
“Kim Jong-un is navigating a maze with high walls of Covid, sanctions and weather disasters,” said Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea.
“Given the present state of China-US relations, Xi Jinping will likely ensure Kim finds his way through the winding maze,” he said.
For now, Kim still has about nine weeks to get ready for President Biden and decide if he wants to meet him and risk a repeat of the 2019 Hanoi summit, where he failed to get any sanctions lifted. Kim is also expected to oversee a meeting of top party leaders in early January, which may provide more clues about what he will do.
In previous administrations, North Korea has conducted a major weapons test within months after the new US president took office.
Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said Kim was no doubt already getting prepared for his new counterpart in Washington.
“North Korea isn’t putting its head in the sand and crying, ‘Oh, why didn’t Trump win the election?’,” he said. “I doubt that.”
“I’m sure they have a plan for Biden, and just based on precedents, it’s more than likely – very likely, I would say – that North Korea would raise the stakes early in the Biden administration with a major provocation,” he said.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former intelligence analyst for the US government, said the gigantic missile and other weapons flaunted in North Korea’s military parade last month may be a signal of what’s to come.
“Those, in essence, are what the Biden administration will have to deal with,” she said. “The message of those weapons is that they’ll want more than what they asked for in Hanoi.”