Solution to the North Korean Conundrum Unlikely
Prof Rajaram Panda

Not exactly in a clear departure from his predecessor Donald Trump’s Asian diplomacy but in a distinct style of his own, President Joe Biden broke out onto Asia’s diplomatic stage in a big way, first by joining Japan, India and Australia in the first-ever Quad summit on 12 March 2021 to be quickly followed by back-to-back foreign and Defense Ministers’ meetings (2+2) in Tokyo and Seoul. It was for the first time such 2+2 meetings were arranged so early in a new administration in contrast to the Trump administration when not even a single such meeting was held during his entire tenure of four years.1

This move demonstrates in both word and deed how the Biden administration recognises the importance to “alliance partnerships” as “a core source of strength” as the Indo-Pacific region has assumed greater salience in security and strategic calculus of the alliance partners. Though there was no denying of the fact that China as the elephant in the room has been the main driver in such strategic US foreign policy activism in Asia and received its share of substantial attention of scholars and analysts, one aspect – North Korea’s nuclear issue – has almost been blacked out at least in the Indian media. One rarely finds any opinion piece or major mention in the Indian media despite the fact that North Korea’s nuclear and missile development issue poses a threat no less than what posed by China for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The vacuum is more glaring because India maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea (in fact both Koreas) and India has shied away from articulating openly its policy towards North Korea. The Ministry of External Affairs appears to be somewhat reticent in making its position clear. This analysis aims to fill this vacuum.

In the past, North Korea entered into several agreements with the US with the promise to denuclearise but each time it violated the terms and conditions of such agreements and went back to the path it knows best – relentless pursuit to develop nuclear weapons and missile advancement. So the trust deficit remains huge. Yet, China took the initiative to launch the Six-Party Talks in August 2003. Even that prematurely ended without yielding any outcome when Kim simply walked out of this dialogue process in April 20092 and announced to resume its nuclear enrichment programme in order to boost its nuclear deterrent. It also expelled all nuclear inspectors from the country. Then President Trump went a step further and persuaded the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to have summit meetings, not one but three, in quick succession to find out a solution to the nuclear issue. The three summits in Singapore, Panmunjom and Hanoi failed to yield any result.

Biden’s Choices

So, what are Biden’s choices are now? The joint statement issued after the meeting between the US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III with their South Korean counterparts Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister of National Defense Suh Wook (2+2), reaffirmed the South Korea-US alliance, forged in blood on the battlefield 70 years ago that serves as the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region and that the alliance has never been more important than now.

This aspect has been extensively reported. What is overlooked that the North Korean issue also figured prominently in the joint statement. It stated: “The Ministers and Secretaries emphasized that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are a priority for the Alliance, and reaffirmed a shared commitment to address and resolve these issues. They affirmed the importance of full implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions by the international community, including North Korea. The ROK and the United States are closely coordinating on all issues related to the Korean Peninsula. Both sides shared the view that these issues should be addressed through a fully-coordinated strategy toward North Korea between the ROK and the United States. To this end, they committed to maintain high-level consultations on the United States' ongoing North Korea policy review.”3

Pyongyang’s One Up-manship

As if to test Biden’s conciliatory move and back channel diplomacy, Pyongyang raised the temper with North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui issuing a statement on 17 March reminding the world that the US had tried to contact Pyongyang since mid-February through several routes, including e-mails and telephone messages, imploring Pyongyang to respond to its request through a third country. Hui reiterated Pyongyang’s position that no contact and dialogue can be possible unless the US rolls back its hostile policy towards North Korea, a standard response from the North whenever any peace overture is made.4 Hui further said that “in order for a dialogue to be made, an atmosphere for both parties to exchange words on an equal basis must be created”. Hui went on “if the U.S. wants so much to sit even once with us face to face, it has to drop its bad habit and adopt a proper stand from the beginning”. He was categorical that the opportunity that Pyongyang gave to the US during summits in Singapore and Hanoi shall not come again easily and that it is prepared to react to the sanctions leverage in the future as has been in the past.5 Pyongyang is prepared to counter the US “on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill”.6

Hui lost no time also to denounce the ongoing combined military exercise between the US and South Korea. Pyongyang has always been critical of the annual drill, denouncing that as rehearsal for eventual invasion of North Korea. Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong also issued a statement critical of the 11-day run joint military exercises that began on 8 March, warning of no replay of inter-Korean détente and an end to a military tension-reducing agreement.7 She warned the Biden administration that if it wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from “causing a stink” at its first step.8

In a further escalatory move and putting the clock back, the regime’s de facto second in command Kim Yo Jong threatened to disband the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Country that handles cross-border affairs, the Mount Geumgang International Tourism Bureau and other organizations, arguing that such bodies have no relevance to exist anymore. Should the North indeed dissolve the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country and other organisations dealing with inter-Korean affairs as threatened by Yo Jong, inter-Korean ties would go back to the way they were before the Singapore summit on 15 June. If the North does that it would retreat into further isolation. As Kim vowed at the Eighth Party Congress to continuously strengthen the country’s military capabilities, further military provocation by testing of new weapons systems cannot be ruled out.9

Latest Sabre-rattling

True to its threat, North Korea test-fired two short-range cruise missiles from the port city of Nampho on 21 March 2021, marking the country’s first public-dated projectile test since Biden took office.10 This showed that Kim was slowly ramping up the tension with the US and this might last for the rest of the current year, implying hereby that even inter-Korean dialogue could end as Moon’s Presidency ends in 2022. Opinions differ if the missile tests send a threatening message to the Biden administration but the truism is that North Korea is not an easy candidate that the US would mess up with.

Though there was no clarity on the distance the missile flew but the fact remains that the launch was not prohibited by the UN Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from conducting ballistic missile activity. Normally, the US and the North Korean media report such launches almost immediately but this time there was no such publicity. This raises the questions if the missiles tested were small or evaded radar detection by the US and the allies.11 But the fact remains that the short-range missile tests were a “subtle message to the Biden administration that time is running out for restarting direct talks”. It could also be an obstinate stance from the North. Its continued reliance on China emboldens Pyongyang to toughen its stance on the US and South Korea.

If North Korea does not get any relief, resumption of bigger tests, possibly longer-range ballistic missiles in the coming days cannot be ruled out. Kim Jong-un in his January 2020 address had said that he is no longer felt bound by his self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests. It may be recalled that Pyongyang has not conducted a nuclear test or launched an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 before his diplomacy with former US President Donald Trump.

The missile test of 21 March was North Korea's first missile test since July 2020. That launch, which involved an anti-ship cruise missile and flew less than 100 kilometers. But the latest missile launch could have been cruise missiles that fly lower than ballistic missiles and may be missed by radars.12

What Lessons Biden has Learnt?

The Biden administration seems to have learnt hard lessons from the Trump era. Further, Covid-19 could make US-North Korea talks very unlikely. With Biden’s outreach to North Korea and behind-the-scene dynamic in order to put pressure on North Korea having failed, the prospects for talks are even bleaker.13 Experts say that North Korea may be holding out for the US’ much-anticipated policy review or for better leverage during negotiations. Until then, it wants to keep its card close to its chest.14

Besides China, North Korea has no real friends. In an unprecedented move, North Korea announced it would sever diplomatic relations with Malaysia after Malaysia’s top court ruled that a North Korean man, Mun Chol Myong, could be extradited to the US to face money laundering charges. Malaysia quickly denounced the decision, describing the move as “unfriendly and unconstructive, disrespecting the spirit of mutual respect and good neighbourly relations among the members of the international community”. It announced to close its embassy in Pyongyang and ordered all diplomatic staff and their dependents at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur to leave the country within 48 hours.15

Malaysia and North Korea had diplomatic relations since 1973. The first test to the relationship came when Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, was murdered with a banned nerve agent as he waited to catch a flight from Kuala Lumpur in 2017.16 Until then, both countries enjoyed warm relations. Following the assassination both expelled each other’s ambassadors and axed a reciprocal visa-free travel arrangement for visitors.

What Next?

With no indication of Pyongyang yielding and remaining inflexible in its stance, what can one expect on the negotiation efforts? While the US insists complete denuclearization of the North, North Korea insists this could be considered in return for substantial sanctions relief. A liberal President in South Korea Moon Jae-in did try to reach out and played the peace broker between the US and North Korea resulting in three summits. Beyond this, nothing else was achieved. His peace card seems to have been exhausted for now. Elections would be due in South Korea in 2022. With the one-term rule for the President, Moon cannot be in the race. Given the behaviour of Kim Jong-un and the public anger mounting in South Korea, if a hardliners returned to the office, things could turn ugly.
Where does China figure in this matrix? China is the only country which is in a position to prevail upon the North but Beijing is not expected to go all the way with the US in its efforts to punish the North. China has its own compulsions and would make all efforts to protect and defend the Kim regime as it has its own vulnerabilities and prevent North Korea from becoming a burden. In this context, the proposal of a Republican lawmaker of the US House of Representatives, Steve Chabot from Ohio, that the only way to denuclearize the North is to have China put more pressure on Pyongyang is worth considering.17 Chabot argues that the likelihood of Japan and South Korea going nuclear should the threat perception crosses the threshold in the respective countries is likely to keep China awake at night, which in turn lead it to prevail upon North Korea to denuclearize. Chabot feels that nuclearising Japan and South Korea is the only way to move China to put more pressure on North Korea to denuclearise.

Does it mean that the US should assist Japan and South Korea going nuclear? Obviously, that is not so. That would mean putting the cart before the horse. If the US initiates move to nuclearise its allies in Asia, the move would violate the international non-proliferation regime. As said, North Korea signed a number of denuclearization agreements with the US and other countries but violated every one of them. If China comes on board, it could ensure that North Korea would not violate any future agreement when reached on the denuclearisation issue. Such a proposition might look over optimistic but in the absence of any better alternative, investing in China as the first responder could be the right move. Also, instead of increasing sanctions on North Korea, to make China listen, the US could consider sanctioning China’s financial institutions that do business with North Korea. The bottom line is China seems to be the only country, not the US and any other country that holds the key to the solution to North Korea’s denuclearisation. So, the issue is too complicated.

  1. James L. Schoff, “Biden hopes ‘alliance math’ adds up to security and stability”, 16 March 2021,
  3. “Joint Statement of the 2021 Republic of Korea and United States Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting ("2+2")”, Office of the Spokesperson, 18 March 2021,
  4. “Statement of First Vice Foreign Minister of DPRK”, 18 March 2021, KCNA,
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kang Seung-woo, “North Korea strongly criticizes combined exercises”, 16 March 2021,
  8. Ibid.
  9. See, Rajaram Panda, “What does Eighth Party Congress of North Korea Reveal”, 21 January 2021,
  10. Chad O’Carroll, “North Korea test-fired two missiles in the early hours of Sunday morning”, 23 March 2021,
  11. William Gallo, “North Korea Conducts First Launch of 2021”, 23 March 2021,
  12. Ibid.
  13. Chad O’Carroll, “Biden’s North Korea outreach failed. Now, prospects for talks are even bleaker”, 15 March 2021,
  14. Won-Gi Jung, “Why North Korea has ‘no reason’ to reply to Biden’s backchannel messages”, 15 Mrch 2021,
  15. “Malaysia denounces North Korean decision to sever diplomatic ties”, 19 March 2021,
  16. See, Rajaram Panda, “Mystery Behind Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination”, 18 February 2017,
  17. “Discussion of nuclearizing S. Korea may help denuclearize N. Korea: US lawmaker”, 17 March 2021,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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