North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the ground-breaking ceremony of a construction project for building 10,000 apartments in Pyongyang, March 2021. Photo: KCNA via KNS / AFP

SEOUL – The great game in Northeast Asia is back on after Pyongyang fired rhetorical barrages following Washington’s announcement of its new policy line towards North Korea.

On Sunday, North Korean state media said Biden was making a “big blunder” for calling its nuclear program a serious threat, and said that the US would face “worse and worse crisis beyond control.”

In a separate statement, Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry took issue with US criticism of its human rights record, calling it an insult to “the dignity of our supreme leadership” led by Kim Jong Un

His sister, Kim Yo Jong, meanwhile issued a statement slamming South Korea for its failure to stop anti-Pyongyang leaflets being flown over the border by a defector group last week, calling it an “intolerable provocation” and warning of “corresponding action.”

Kim Jong Un, who expended considerable political capital on his diplomatic dalliance with former US president Donald Trump, has appeared to delegate the “bad cop” role to Kim Yo Jong, leaving himself the option to play the statesman if necessary.

“The Kim regime doesn’t like the Biden administration’s focus on denuclearization, nor does it welcome ideological challenges from defector groups,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“By vehemently expressing its displeasure, Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States before [South Korean President] Moon’s May 21 summit with Biden in Washington.”

Significantly, Pyongyang has not unleashed any top-tier provocations – such as a nuclear test or an ICBM launch – since Kim exited his isolation and started engaging in global summitry in 2018.

But he may have lost credibility among his own elite for the failure of his summitry to produce any favorable outcomes.

Kim Jong Un in ebullient form. The North Korean leader is engaged in a new rivalry with US President Joe Biden. Photo: AFP

Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute of Policy Studies, has seen a hard-line re-emerging in Pyongyang over the last year in the long aftermath of the failed Hanoi summit of 2019.

“They have been making their negotiating position very inflexible in the last year or so, and there is a growing emphasis that they will not even consider denuclearization in future rounds of negotiations,” Go said. “I think they are out there to prove that the idea they are willing to give up some nukes in a limited way in return for a partial lifting of sanctions is wrong.”

But with so many domestic economic problems generated by a toxic combination of global sanctions and Covid-19 border closures to contend with, the regime appears to be toughening up rather than softening down.

In Washington, Biden has affirmed his prioritization on the Indo-Pacific.  He has not only deployed his leading foreign policy and security officials to the region on their first international tour, but also met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as his first counterpart visitor.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will follow in short order, meeting Biden on May 21 at the White House. His officials are talking up the regional “Quad” partnership and urging Seoul and Tokyo to present a united front.

And North Korean-US animosity is playing out against the wider backdrop of a China-US rivalry that has not been dampened in the transition from Trump to Biden. North Korea is a rare Chinese ally, but also an unpredictable and problematic one and China wants regional calm.

Still, while Beijing officials scratch their heads over the sometimes obtuse behavior of their North Korean proxy, US officials face an even more complex task.

As the new US administration trains its diplomatic gunsights on North Korea, it is being pulled in three directions between the demands of its own priorities, and those of Japan and South Korea.

A slow vaccination campaign, a new wave of infections and a recent by-election wipeout spell trouble for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, now in the last year of his presidency. Photo: AFP

Washington’s new line

Following the conclusion of its months-long policy review, the broad contours of the Biden administration’s approach toward North Korea were sketched in by White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Friday.

“Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” she told reporters.

That stated aim will surprise nobody. Experts in Seoul and Washington say US presidents have minimal wriggle room on North Korea’s nukes, as they need to both assure their domestic public and maintain the global non-proliferation regime.

Noting that the “past four administrations have not achieved this objective,” Psaki continued, “Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience.”

That line was a not particularly veiled criticism of the Trump and Obama administrations.

Trump sought a big deal by striking up a personal relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But after Kim declined to take the extensive set of steps Trump demanded at a summit in Hanoi in 2019, relations rapidly cooled.

Obama, after an early, 2013 initiative failed, put North Korea on the diplomatic back burner, hoping that the North’s economic problems would impel it to change course. That did not happen.

Instead, Psaki said that the United States will pursue a “calibrated” practical approach to its diplomacy with North Korea.

“This probably refers to action for action,” said Go at Seoul’s Asan Institute of Policy Studies. “It probably means Biden is going to lift sanctions only in exchange for limited denuclearization by North Korea.”

Moreover, the US would seek “practical progress” that increases the security of both the United States and its allies, Psaki said.

“I think they are referring to concrete progress on the nuclear and missile front. They want to see North Korea giving up physical weapons or facilities,” was Go’s take away.  “I think it is veiled criticism of Trump and Moon, who were claiming that North Korea was going to denuclearize.”

Regarding the reference to allies, the Biden administration – unlike its predecessor – has refocused on America’s partnerships. However, encompassing the demands of its key regional allies complicates the already tough and perhaps impossible task of North Korean denuclearization.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un greet each other in the first meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader, in Singapore in 2018. The fleeting promise of this unprecedented partnership evaporated in 2019. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

Allies’ competing priorities

North Korean-US relations have been at an impasse since Korean War hostilities ended in 1953. For most of the years since, the US was content to contain North Korea and ensure the safety of its Japanese and South Korean allies.

The dimensions of the North Korean problem expanded massively after Pyongyang went critical with its first atomic test in 2006. And with North Korea now capable of hitting the mainland US with intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, a more America-centric policy replaced Washington’s traditional US aims.

Washington has re-committed itself to working with Seoul and Tokyo. On the plus side, all three countries want North Korean denuclearization. South Korea’s Moon is anti-nuke by conviction, and both Tokyo and Washington have security concerns.

Beyond that, though, national priorities differ from the kind of launch vehicles that carry the North’s deterrent to the concerns of their domestic publics.

For Washington, the main missile threat is IBCMs and possibly the North’s nascent submarine-launched missiles. These are the weapons that threaten the continental US.

Tokyo is focused on medium and long-range ballistic missiles. Another issue high on the “to do” list of every Japanese prime minister is the (possibly intractable) issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

ICBMs are of little concern to Seoul, which lies within range of North Korea’s short-range missiles and even its conventional artillery.  Seoul has little interest in abductions of Japanese citizens, and is far keener to directly engage Pyongyang than are Tokyo or Washington.

Seoul has also customarily been reluctant to criticize North Korea’s human rights abuses, seeing it as pointless. While the Trump administration also toned down that line, the Biden administration is more vocal.

So what policy steps can be taken that will coordinate all three allies’ interests?

The Seoul-Tokyo defense divide

“Strengthening deterrence is clearly a priority,” said Easley of Ewha Womans University.  “The US has hosted a trilateral meeting with South Korea and Japan’s national security advisers as well as a discussion among the top generals of the three countries.” 

“I am sure Biden officials thought about this carefully, looking for overlapping areas of interest among US allies and the US,” said Go. “I think the only overlap is deterrence, and if that is the case, what Biden is saying makes sense to enhance military posture in collaboration with allies.”

But that, too, presents a headache for US diplomats and generals. South Korea and Japan are bitterly at odds over historical and historiographical issues.

Over the last three years, these issues broke through their customary firewalls to impact political, economic and security relationships. It is far from clear whether the US will be able to force its two allies to play nice – by, for example engaging in trilateral military exercises or other defense-related cooperation.

However, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Moon, who has arguably been more anti-Japanese than any previous South Korean leader, ends his single term in office in spring 2022. Suga, who has declined to engage with Moon – who has reversed his strong anti-Japanese stance in recent months – may also not survive the year, given his largely ineffective leadership thus far.

So Washington may find itself with leaders in Seoul and Tokyo that are more amenable to each other in the near future. The bigger question is whether Pyongyang is willing to re-engage diplomatically.

Demonstration fire of tactical guided weapons at an undisclosed location in North Korea in March 2020. Photo: North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency/AFP

Why China wants calm

So where does this leave China? One expert says that despite their common animosity toward Washington, it is currently in Beijing’s interest to keep Pyongyang quiet.

“Does China want to justify reasons to increase the US military budget? Does it want to create excuses to send more US aircraft carriers to China’s coasts? Does it want more [US anti-missile batteries] around China’s borders?” asked Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

And while North Korea may sometimes strain against the Chinese leash, its dire economic circumstances mean it is in no position to do so now.

“North Korea usually starts every new US administration by testing them and reminding them that North Korea exists, so in normal times, missiles would be flying by now,” Lankov said. “But China does not want the confrontation and North Korea has never been as dependent on China as it is now.”