In the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, it appears his administration will be unsuccessful in achieving its stated goal of the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Kim Jong Un pledged to further expand North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons at a recent Party Congress, and attention now turns to President-elect Joe Biden’s administration and its policy approach to North Korea.
Though Trump’s term included historic meetings with Kim that marked the first time the sitting leaders of both countries met in person, this face-to-face contact between both leaders failed to persuade the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear weapons. While Trump’s immediate goal of CVID may have failed, the incoming Biden administration has a chance to capitalize on an environment in which the North Koreans have tested neither nuclear weapons nor long-range ballistic missiles since prior to the first summit with Trump.
Another historic meeting took place between an American and a North Korean in 1980 that receives less attention than the summits between Trump and Kim but bears lessons for the incoming administration. Representative Stephen Solarz visited Pyongyang and became the first sitting American government official to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, in the wake of the Korean War. Analysis offered in the wake of the meeting remains strikingly relevant to this day: “…in the resolution of an international conflict that has, if anything, been hardening for three decades, it is the direction of movement, much more than the pace, that counts.”
That prescient statement from over four decades ago can serve as a reminder to the Biden administration that CVID should not be taken off the table as a goal, albeit with the understanding that it is a long-term one. Given the myriad challenges currently facing the United States, North Korea does not rank as one of the four areas– COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change – that the Office of the President-elect listed in the early stages of Biden's victory as priorities. This will likely remain the case early in Biden's presidency, absent a major North Korean provocation.
Such a level of prioritization also fits with the evolution of the American public's views of the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear weapons program. According to data from the 2020 Chicago Council Survey, an all-time low 51 percent of Americans considered North Korea's nuclear weapons program as a critical threat. This comes after an all-time high in 2017 of 75 percent who viewed the program as a critical threat.
Despite this, North Korea will still receive a substantial amount of attention from the new administration. This country of 25 million people has proven to be one of the most vexing issues in American foreign policy for 13 of Biden’s predecessors to occupy the Oval Office. Despite the variety of approaches attempted, there is no single policy panacea to ameliorate this decades-old challenge in American foreign policy. Success will hinge on overcoming the distrust that has been pervasive in the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang throughout history.
Such a feat is daunting. The sheer destruction visited on North Korea by the United States during the Korean War isn't forgotten by the country's leaders, and in more recent times, the North Koreans were threatened with additional “fire and fury” as an American president also insisted on CVID. Muammar Gaddafi's fate after being convinced to abandon his weapons of mass destruction program surely resonates with the North Korean leadership as well. At the recent Party Congress, Kim stated the US was the "biggest obstacle for our revolution, and our biggest enemy…no matter who is in power, the true nature of its policy against North Korea will never change."
The sustainability of any agreement reached may also be of concern to the North Koreans. From the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to the Paris Climate Accord, the United States has reversed course on multiple agreements to which it previously agreed. Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on the merits of these particular agreements, their reversals at the hands of an individual President present a challenge for the United States to build and maintain trust abroad. This problem is amplified in the relationship with North Korea, given the substantial mutual trust deficit. It will be challenging to offer the North Koreans reliable guarantees that any agreements reached will not be reversed by a future administration with a differing ideology.
However, progress is possible should Biden and his team make incremental, though steady, attempts to further reduce tensions while simultaneously building trust with the North Koreans. The new administration could prove successful in laying the groundwork for a fundamental shift over time in what has been a perennially acrimonious relationship. Unchanged from the analysis offered four decades ago, the direction of movement will matter more than the pace when ultimately resolving this conflict.
Matt Abbott is director of Government and Diplomatic Programs at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any institutional positions.