‘Your move, Mr President’: North Korea sets the stage for Biden

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un celebrated his birthday with a long wish-list of new weapons.

It included more accurate long-range missiles, super large warheads, spy satellites and a nuclear-powered submarine.

The military plans announced during one of the biggest political events in North Korea in the last five years may sound threatening – and it is indeed a threat.

But it’s also a challenge. The timing of this message is key as it comes as US President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.

Mr Kim, who has also now been promoted to Secretary General (the highest rank of the ruling Worker’s Party), is struggling to be heard outside his own country amidst the current tumult in the US.

But if the incoming US administration harbours any hopes of preventing Mr Kim’s nuclear ambitions, now might be the time to listen.

“Kim’s announcements no doubt are meant to emphasise to the incoming US administration that a failure to take quick action will result in North Korea qualitatively advancing its capabilities in ways deleterious to US and South Korean interests,” said Ankit Panda, author of Kim Jong-un and the Bomb, adding that Joe Biden’s administration should take this seriously.

Mr Kim and Donald Trump met three times, but they failed to reach any agreement to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme or the current crippling economic sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the US and the UN.

The questions being asked on the Korean peninsula are whether Joe Biden can do any better, and whether he should take Mr Kim’s threat seriously.

“I think the president-elect should take that at face value and, as soon as possible, clarify his perspective on what objectives his administration will seek in potential negotiations with North Korea,” said Mr Panda.

“If Kim sees no shift from the traditional US emphasis on comprehensive and total nuclear disarmament before any sanctions can be eased, I’d think he’ll simply push ahead with testing and other activities,” he added.

In his speech to the thousands of delegates at the Workers’ Party Congress, Mr Kim described the US as his country’s “biggest enemy” – but he also added that he did not “rule out diplomacy”.

The summits may have failed, but they have been glorified in technicolour in the main hall of the party Congress as an “event of the greatest significance in the history of world politics”.

So there is wiggle room if Joe Biden wishes to use it.

But Duyeon Kim, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the US would have to make the first move and any deal will come at a cost.

“Kim Jong-un’s price for the US is ending combined military drills with Seoul, removing sanctions, and refraining from making human rights criticisms before talks. Washington won’t do these unconditionally,” Duyeon Kim said.

“Even if negotiations resumed, Kim’s price is high for any deal because he’s been suggesting Cold War-style arms control talks in which both sides take mutual and reciprocal steps. But that doesn’t make sense because there’s no parity between US and North Korean nuclear arsenals.”

It is my understanding that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un came close to a deal at their second meeting in Hanoi in February 2019.

But that deal is no longer on the table, and Mr Kim is now negotiating with a very different president.

What Mr Kim is doing with this speech is trying to prove he has the upper hand.

He’s resetting the starting point for talks – it’s no longer about giving up his current arsenal, it’s about preventing him from building a new and improved one.

BBC

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