Trump was disliked by the Korean right for his frequent criticism of the U.S. military alliance with South Korea. This caused them to fear that, if re-elected, he could conclude an agreement with North Korea, providing for a significant reduction in the American military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
The administration of incumbent President Moon Jae-in has a complex attitude towards the results of the American elections. On the one hand, there were hopes with Trump for a compromise agreement between the United States and North Korea – the South Korean left, unlike the right, would be happy with such an agreement. On the other hand, official Seoul was irritated by Trump's rhetoric and style.
As a result, the main political forces in South Korea expect exactly the opposite of the next US president. The left - a new compromise on the Korean Peninsula, and the right – an end to "senseless and dangerous flirting with Pyongyang."
Rigidity and compromise
There is a contradiction in expectations, but now it is really difficult to say what policy the Biden administration will pursue towards North Korea – Washington is at a fork in the road.
On the one hand, Biden has repeatedly criticized Trump's attempts to improve relations with North Korea without guarantees of nuclear disarmament. During the debate, Biden called Kim Jong-un a "thug" on several occasions and said he would only negotiate with Pyongyang if North Korea agreed to renounce nuclear weapons. Given that North Korea will not agree to this under any circumstances, such a statement means that Biden is not ready to negotiate with the DPRK.
Thus, it would appear that Biden is a hardliner on North Korea. However, there is another side to the situation. In recent years, it is precisely those American experts who are associated with the Democratic Party that have become increasingly aware of what, generally speaking, they should have realized fifteen years ago: North Korea's nuclear program is an irreversible fact of the global strategic situation.
There is a growing understanding among the Democratic Party and its associated experts (that is, among the administration's talent pool) that the only way out may be a compromise, including de facto recognition that North Korea is a nuclear power and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
In addition, Biden and those around him, unlike Trump, do not like top-down negotiations. This approach implies that first the leaders enter into some general agreement with the main contours of what they want to achieve, and the study of specific details is left to specialists. Biden, on the other hand, is inclined to start with careful grassroots negotiations.
This means that specialists in Washington will deal with North Korean issues, among whom the prevailing belief is that a compromise is inevitable, that the time of hopes for the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea has passed and that now we should think not about disarmament, but about control over the already existing nuclear arsenal.
Thus, all of Biden's harsh statements may not be taken at face value. Most likely, they indicate the position that the new administration will take in the first months after the inauguration.
In this regard, there is a threat that Pyongyang, faced with the reluctance of the Americans to enter into negotiations, may resort to its usual tactics - to create an "artificial crisis." First, by "provocative" actions, it will sharply increase the level of tension, and then agree to negotiations and return to the pre-crisis situation, having received some kind of reward for its willingness to retreat. In this case, it may be the willingness of the United States to negotiate a compromise solution.
Therefore, the North Korean leadership is now tempted to withdraw from the unilateral moratorium on the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which the country announced in early 2018. In an impressive night parade in Pyongyang on October 10, the public was shown both old, tested, and new models of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking targets in the United States.
At the moment, North Korea has at least three types of ICBMs capable of striking the continental United States, and one of them, first shown at the October 10 parade, has not yet been tested. The launch of ICBMs and, possibly, another nuclear test in the first months of Biden's presidency will certainly remind Washington that North Korea does not intend to patiently wait for the American side to deign to begin negotiations and that nuclear scientists and missile engineers continue to work successfully.
South Korean diplomacy, however, is taking all measures to dissuade the North Korean leadership from such tough measures. Most likely, Chinese diplomacy is working in a similar direction.
It is the position of China that seems to be the decisive factor that will determine the events of the coming months. Due to the aggravation of contradictions with Washington, Beijing is interested in maintaining stability in the region and does not want to give the United States any reason to increase its presence near the Chinese borders. On the other hand, North Korea's dependence on China has reached an unprecedented level under tough sanctions – only China, interested in maintaining the status quo, is ready to provide North Korea with significant assistance, including in violation of UN sanctions.
So it is possible that under pressure from Beijing, on which Pyongyang now depends so much, the DPRK leadership will abandon unnecessarily tough actions. Although, from the point of view of Pyongyang itself, it now makes sense to aggravate and create a crisis in order to push Biden to negotiations and concessions.
The question also arises of how the events on the Korean Peninsula will affect the interests of Russia and whether Moscow can influence what is happening. Alas, Russia's opportunities on the Korean Peninsula, which have already been limited for several decades, will probably only diminish with the coming to power of the Biden administration.
Unlike China, Russia cannot exert economic pressure on North Korea. Despite the sanctions and quarantine measures of unparalleled severity, the North Korean economy remains afloat and avoids hunger largely because China is ready to support it – it is at the cost of these subsidies that China gains some influence in Pyongyang. However, Russia's role in providing economic aid to North Korea over the past 30 years has been more than modest.
The volume of trade between Russia and North Korea, even if we take into account the significant "unofficial component", also remains very small – we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, while in the case of China it is worth billions.
Until recently, Pyongyang was interested in Russia as a relatively benevolent and safe mediator in negotiations with the United States and the West, as well as a kind of diplomatic counterbalance in these contacts. Unlike China, which Pyongyang treats with apprehension, the North Korean leadership is not particularly afraid of Russia, realizing that Moscow has neither the desire nor the ability to interfere in North Korea's internal politics.
In addition, up to a certain point, Russia had some opportunities to influence the actions of other interested parties, primarily Western countries. Russia was perceived by Pyongyang as a possible mediator who could even be trusted to some extent.
However, with the sharp intensification of the Russian-American confrontation after 2014, Russia's mediation capabilities diminished. It is clear that if the West is listening to Moscow’s voice now, it’s more likely on the principle “listen to what the Kremlin has to say and do the opposite.” When Washington and its allies treat Russia with suspicion and hostility, perceive it as an adversary and junior partner of China, Pyongyang does not have to rely on the effectiveness of Russian mediation.
The dilemma that Russia faced on the Korean Peninsula was well described by Vasyl Kashyn. On the one hand, Russia may try to pursue its own line there, somewhat different from that of China. But for all its attractiveness, such a position will be quite costly, because everyone always has to pay for influence on North Korea - including with hard cash.
Now it does not seem that Moscow has a desire to invest in this project. And this lack of enthusiasm seems to be quite justified, since possible political and strategic acquisitions, most likely, are not worth the money that will have to be paid for them.
On the other hand, Russia may agree to stay in China's wake and actually follow China's line. This position will not require serious investments, but, of course, it will mean a temporary rejection of autonomy in operations on the Korean Peninsula.
Biden's coming to power increases the likelihood that the situation will develop according to the second scenario – passive and pro-Chinese. In the confrontation with the West, Russia cannot play the role of an effective mediator, and Moscow's reluctance to actively subsidize North Korea means that Pyongyang is not interested in Russia as a potential donor. However, should you be upset about this? After all, the Taoists were right when they taught that there are times when not doing is not only the only possible but also the best policy.