Despite North Korea’s Sharp Rhetoric, Some Hope for Diplomatic Opening

Rare Party meeting sends signals . . . 

In his address to the Workers’ Party Congress last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made predictable but telling remarks on his approach to the incoming Biden administration. He referred to the U.S. as North Korea’s “biggest enemy” and pledged to increase the accuracy of Pyongyang’s long-range missiles, which are capable of hitting North America. That could mean a resumption of highly provocative missile tests fired into the Pacific Ocean. Somewhat unconventionally, however, Kim also acknowledged failures to improve living standards, although he stayed true to form by punting the blame, especially on international sanctions imposed in response to his country’s nuclear program.

Reading between the lines . . .

Some experts suggest that Kim’s harsh language and his hints at ramping up weapons testing could be a page from the old playbook – manufacturing a crisis early in a new U.S. president’s tenure to get attention and extract concessions. North Korea is increasingly desperate for sanctions relief, especially amid its deteriorating economic conditions. But the most immediate economic problems are due to the near-total sealing of its border with China. The resulting trade shocks have led to, according to one expert, “cascading shortages [of goods] throughout the economy,” even in the capital of Pyongyang. Last month, Science magazine warned that North Korea, which has one of the world’s highest tuberculosis (TB) rates, was running perilously low on TB medications.

Rays of hope?

There are also subtler – and more encouraging – signs emanating from both Pyongyang and Washington. For example, North Korea’s ambassador to Germany reportedly told a European Parliament member in November that it wanted better ties with the U.S. In addition, Biden’s pick for the new CIA Director, Williams Burns, is a seasoned former diplomat who in 2019 expressed support for establishing a back-channel dialogue with Pyongyang. Finally, North Korea’s humanitarian crises could be an unexpected but fruitful opening for engagement were Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul to co-ordinate much-needed humanitarian assistance. However, capitalizing on these opportunities will require Pyongyang’s acceptance of such assistance and Washington’s willingness not to make aid contingent on denuclearization commitments.