Will North Korea be a bigger threat under Biden or Trump?

Max Kim | Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SEOUL, South Korea — Faced with other more pressing developments in Ukraine and Gaza, the Biden administration has largely kept the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program on the back burner.

But tensions around the Korean peninsula have been ratcheting up for years, opening a new and uncertain chapter in a pitched standoff that, just six years ago under then-President Donald Trump, seemed to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

So what happened? And what lies in store for whoever wins the White House in November?

In 2018, hopes ran high that North Korea might finally relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

Following three summits between then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the two countries issued a joint declaration pledging better ties between the countries, the easing of military tensions and a mutual commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

That unprecedented document, the Panmunjom Declaration, set the stage for meetings between Trump and Kim Jong Un, who had until then been slinging insults at one another, with Trump belittling Kim as “little rocket man” and Kim calling Trump a “dotard” — or a senile old person.

Held over the course of 2018 and 2019 in Singapore, Hanoi and the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the three meetings produced several gestures of goodwill, such as Pyongyang repatriating the remains of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and dismantling several rocket launch sites. At the DMZ, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on the North Korean side of the border.

But the meetings failed to achieve a denuclearization deal, running into the same intractable problem that has defined the conflict for decades: the United States’ reluctance to accept anything less than total and immediate nuclear disarmament and North Korea’s equal reluctance to surrender its primary source of leverage.

Things have gone downhill ever since.

In June 2020, North Korea blew up a joint liaison office that had been installed on its side of the border to facilitate communication with Seoul. It also resumed its nuclear program, rebuilding the nuclear test site it had partially demolished following the Panmunjom Declaration.

North Korea has launched more than 100 missiles since 2022, and U.S. and South Korean officials have said it is likely preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test — the first since 2017.

In September 2022, North Korea passed a law officially declaring itself a nuclear state, with Kim Jong Un vowing that the country would “never give up” its nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to contain at least 40, and perhaps more than 100, warheads.

The new law specifies several scenarios in which the country would use nuclear weapons, including preemptive strikes in the event of imminent attack.

As a result, the last few years have seen increasingly combustible military postures by both Koreas and the United States.

“North Korea has obviously never had this many nuclear weapons, especially those of such technological sophistication, when it comes to delivery methods or strike range,” said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul.

“But all the negotiation channels or mechanisms that North and South Korea had for preventing escalation or misunderstandings are gone. The safety pin has been pulled out.”

In response to North Korea’s growing nuclear might, the Biden administration has resumed military drills with South Korea that had been paused under Trump. It has said that any nuclear attack by North Korea “will result in the end of that regime.”

South Korea has also been honing its strategy to decapitate North Korean leadership, while Kim Jong Un, who recently repudiated the once-shared goal of Korean reunification, labeled South Korea as his regime’s “primary foe.” Given these competing moves, altercations seem inevitable, experts say.

“I don’t think the chances of a full-blown war are particularly high, because there is now an element of greater deterrence in play,” Kim, the professor, said. “But the likelihood of smaller-scale conflicts has risen significantly, especially in areas near the border with North Korea.”