The international community’s efforts to compel North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program came to a halt in 2020 following the breakdown of US-led negotiations and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while fears that Pyongyang would show its frustration by conducting another nuclear or ICBM test never came to fruition, much of Seoul’s inroads with the regime literally went up in smoke.
The fanfare surrounding the unprecedented summits between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un during the two previous years and the hope that this unlikely partnership would somehow bring an end to decades of hostility on the Korean Peninsula seemed like a distant memory in 2020.
Momentum to reach an agreement over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the reduction of sanctions and the signing of a peace treaty that would officially conclude the Korean War was never regained after the leaders’ February 2019 summit in Hanoi where both men walked away without any deal. Those initiatives seemed to fade even further into the past as the world grappled with the new coronavirus and the Trump administration turned nearly full attention toward its ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign.
Stephen Biegun, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and envoy to denuclearization talks with the north, underscored some of these unfulfilled ambitions in December during what was likely his swan song visit to Seoul.
“You might wonder if I am disappointed that we did not accomplish more over the past two years. I am,” he said during a speech at a local think tank, according to State Department transcripts.
“Despite setbacks, disappointments, and missed opportunities over the past two years, I believe no less today than the day I first took on this responsibility that the vision President Trump and Chairman Kim have shared for the Peninsula is possible, and that we are not done,” he said.
But North Korea is showing no sign that it is ready to resume dialogue with the United States; it has spent much of this year in a self-imposed quarantine, locking down its borders to almost all foreign trade and humanitarian assistance to shield itself from the pandemic. And now faced with change in U.S. leadership, Pyongyang has yet to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November polls and the loss of its former negotiating partner in the White House.
Because of Pyongyang’s silence coupled with the incoming Biden administration’s still undeclared Korea policy, many analysts are unsure how Washington and Seoul will attempt to overcome 2020’s diplomatic setbacks. But most agree that the first months of 2021 could determine the trajectory of engagement with Pyongyang.
North Korea’s unwillingness to comment on the change of leadership in the U.S. should be expected, explained Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“Trump has called himself a friend, and Biden has called Kim a thug and that’s why North Korea hasn’t said anything about Biden’s victory, yet,” he said.
It will be up to the new Biden administration to make initial overtures to the North in order to re-open dialogue, said James Kim, senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, who said the two nations are now at a “crossroads.”
“Otherwise, I just don't see how we're going to break out from the current impasse,” he said.
Kim expects Biden’s approach to negotiations with Pyongyang to differ from Trump’s “top-down” strategy, which he said, “didn't lead to any substantive change from the status quo.”
“If anything, the situation might have even gotten worse,” Kim added.
In October, Kim Jong Un unveiled during a Worker’s Party parade in Pyongyang what analysts say appeared to be a new, larger intercontinental ballistic missile as well as other ballistic missiles. And according to a confidential United Nations report released in August, multiple governments believe North Korea is now likely able to miniaturize nuclear warheads to be fitted into long-range rockets, the Reuters News Agency and other media outlets said.
The change of administration in Washington also presents an opportunity to work more in step with Seoul, said Hee-jin Koo, a research fellow at the Korea Peninsula Future Forum.
She told VOA News that since the last Trump-Kim summit, the Moon Jae-in administration was “side-lined” in U.S. denuclearization policy but expects the next American president to approach future talks more multilaterally.
But, Koo said one sticking point between the allies could be the ratification of a Korean War peace treaty that Moon has championed with the backing of Trump but that might be less of a priority during the Biden presidency.
“It could be more difficult for the Moon administration to pursue that,” she said, adding that Biden might restart a “maximum pressure” campaign and call for the resumption of large-scale, joint military exercises with South Korean forces that the Trump administration suspended.
President Moon’s efforts to nurture cross-border relations were dealt a severe blow in June, when Pyongyang shut-down shared military hotlines and demolished an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the de-militarized zone with explosives, effectively severing all links with Seoul.
North Korea has ignored the Moon government’s offers of pandemic relief. And the government recently lashed out at South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha after she questioned Pyongyang’s claim that it has not recorded any COVID-19 cases.
"We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for it,” Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s powerful sister, said in a statement carried by official media on December 9.
North Korea could offer clarity on its position toward Washington as well as Seoul’s engagement efforts during a rare meeting of the ruling Worker’s Party in January, which will coincide with Biden’s presidential inauguration on the 20th, said the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ James Kim.
“This one-month period is going to be key,” he said. “If we're going to see any movements from North Korea or any positioning or posturing changes, we're likely to see it within the month of February,” he said.
Juhyun Lee contributed to this story.