North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is marking the impending end of the Trump administration early by leveling a major threat to expand Pyongyang‘s nuclear weapons and missile programs unless the incoming Biden administration dials back America’s “hostile” policy toward North Korea.
In a warning that has not yet drawn a response from President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Mr. Kim made global headlines Friday by declaring that the U.S. remains his country’s “biggest enemy,” despite the three meetings he had with President Trump, whose outreach to the young dictator ultimately failed to deliver a breakthrough denuclearization deal.
Mr. Kim made the statement on his 37th birthday in a speech to his regime’s ruling Workers’ Party Congress. At a gathering in Pyongyang last week, he sowed uncertainty over how U.S. policy toward North Korea will look under Mr. Biden, who once called Mr. Kim a “thug” and has criticized Mr. Trump’s summits with the dictator.
Based on his history and his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Biden is unlikely to pursue the kinds of high-stakes direct meetings with Mr. Kim that Mr. Trump favored. The incoming president is instead expected to return to the policy of “strategic patience” embraced during the final years of the George W. Bush administration and throughout the Obama era, when Mr. Biden was vice president.
The approach will likely revolve around efforts to continue isolating Pyongyang through U.S. and United Nations sanctions while taking care to avoid rewarding the Kim regime with any major diplomatic overtures. But some fear Mr. Kim is likely to test the new administration, perhaps with a nuclear or long-range ballistic missile test.
Such concerns have been underscored during recent days by Mr. Kim‘s Workers’ Party speech, declaring that North Korea “need[s] to strengthen [its] national defense capabilities without a moment of hesitation to deter the United States’ nuclear threats and to bring peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.”
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted Mr. Kim as saying the “key to establishing new relations between [North Korea] and the United States is whether the United States withdraws its hostile policy.”
North Korea‘s “external political activities going forward should be focused on suppressing and subduing the U.S., the basic obstacle, [and] biggest enemy against our revolutionary development,” said Mr. Kim, who listed sophisticated weapons systems that he said were under development.
According to The Associated Press, a KCNA report over the weekend said the weapons systems include a multiwarhead missile, underwater-launched nuclear missiles, solid-fueled long-range missiles and spy satellites.
Mr. Kim was also cited as saying North Korea must advance its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) precision attack capability on targets as far as 9,300 miles way — an apparent reference to the U.S. mainland — while developing technology to manufacture smaller nuclear warheads to be mounted on long-range missiles more easily.
“The reality is that we can achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula when we constantly build up our national defense and suppress U.S. military threats,” the North Korean leader said.
International observers widely regard KCNA, the official propaganda outlet of the North Korean regime, as a murky window into the notoriously secretive activities of the isolated government in Pyongyang. It is known to offer at times conflicting and difficult-to-interpret reports.
The news of Mr. Kim‘s remarks about the U.S., for instance, coincided with KCNA reports citing the North Korean leader as stressing the need to drastically improve his nation’s ties with the outside world. The New York Times maintained over the weekend that Mr. Kim said at one point during the Workers’ Party Congress that he did “not rule out diplomacy.”
Although it was not clear whether the remark was directed at Washington, Mr. Kim has a history of launching provocations and hurling heated threats only to later agree to diplomatic engagement. That was the case at the start of the Trump era, when the president was also engaging in threatening rhetoric. Mr. Trump warned in 2017 that he would unleash “fire and fury” like the world has never seen if North Korea did not dial down its weapons provocations. Ultimately, he agreed to hold his first summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore in 2018.
Talks between North Korean, South Korean and American officials have been stalled since a summit in Hanoi in 2019 ended in failure. Mr. Trump walked out of Hanoi claiming Mr. Kim had demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a partial abandonment of the North’s nuclear programs, which have been built clandestinely in violation of decades of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In his remarks last week, Mr. Kim said his regime intends to pursue a policy of boosting ties with China, its biggest ally and economic lifeline. At the same time, Mr. Kim slammed U.S.-ally South Korea for continuing to hold joint military drills with American forces and for introducing its own increasingly modern weapons.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry responded over the weekend that it hopes for the a resumption of North Korean-U.S. talks. It said the inauguration of a new president in Washington could serve as a good chance to improve ties.
Analysts are circumspect.
Nam Sung-wook, an expert on North Korea at Korea University in South Korea, told The Associated Press that “Kim‘s speech foreshows the North Korean-U.S. relations won’t be smooth in the next four years with Biden in office.”
David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and North Korea expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, called on the incoming Biden administration to avoid yielding to the rhetorical pressure from Mr. Kim.
“Kim may think he is challenging President-elect Biden to implement a different policy toward [N]orth Korea and to break with all past administrations to include the Trump administration,” Mr. Maxwell said in comments circulated via email.
“He is saying to Biden — ‘dare to be different’ and then we will talk. But we should not be duped by Kim‘s continued long con and political warfare strategy,” Mr. Maxwell said, adding that Mr. Kim is “acting similarly toward South Korea.”
“He is blaming the failed [N]orth-South engagement on the South (and the Minister of Unification has responded predictably and as Kim desires,” Mr. Maxwell said. “The South will double down on engagement despite Kim‘s anti-South rhetoric. The subversion of the South continues.”
Others said there was little question about the gravity of Mr. Kim‘s threats, particularly with regard to the North Korean leader’s vow to expand his nuclear weapons arsenal.
“It lights a fire under the Biden administration,” said Ankit Panda, a Stanton Senior Fellow in the in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Kim is making clear that if Biden decides not to prioritize North Korea policy, Pyongyang will resume testing and qualitatively advancing its nuclear capabilities in ways that would be seriously detrimental for Washington and Seoul,” Mr. Panda told Bloomberg News.