With North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un missing from the public eye for almost a month, there are fears he could be plotting a sinister plan to test president-elect Joe Biden following his US election win.
Experts have suggested Kim could be planning to launch missile tests before the presidential inauguration on January 20.
North Korea has a history of undertaking missile tests, with the country launching short-range missiles earlier this year following Kim’s promise to possess a “new strategic weapon”.
Since Biden has been elected the new president, former State Department official and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Evans Revere, told Time Pyongyang could be preparing to make its mark on the new administration.
“It is possible Pyongyang will conduct a nuclear or long-range missile test prior to the inauguration or shortly thereafter as a way of laying down a marker with the new president and increasing its negotiating leverage with Washington,” he said.
“The Biden team will be mindful of the failings of [President Donald Trump’s] approach, which has amounted to turning a blind eye to North Korea’s steady accumulation of nuclear weapons and testing of medium-range missiles.”
It would come after Kim aggravated Trump shortly after he officially took office in 2017, with the North Korean dictator bragging “the entire area of the US mainland is within our nuclear strike range.”
It marked the start of a fluctuating relationship between Trump and Kim, with the US president labelling the dictator “little rocket man” while North Korean state media dubbed Trump a “dotard”.
Biden vows to resolve North Korean nuclear issue
Trump and Kim vowed to work towards denuclearisation at their unprecedented summit in 2018, but little progress has been made since their second summit and working-level talks collapsed last year.
While Biden has said he would not meet with Kim without preconditions, he has also said he would embrace "principled diplomacy" with North Korea.
Speaking to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Biden reaffirmed the US’s commitment to defend South Korea, highlighting the Asian ally as a "lynchpin of the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region".
"President Moon asked for close cooperation for the forward-looking development of the bilateral alliance, and the denuclearisation and peace on the Korean peninsula," Moon's spokesman Kang Min-seok said.
"President-elect Biden said he would closely cooperate to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue."
Biden’s past tensions with North Korea
Pyongyang’s view of Trump’s democratic rival Joe Biden has been uncompromising, with North Korea once calling the president-elect a “rabid dog” who “must be beaten to death”.
Trump vowed to make deals with North Korea “very quickly” if he won a second term on November 3, but analysts and officials believe Biden will take a starkly different approach.
Pyongyang despises Biden for his role in the Obama administration, which adopted a policy of "strategic patience", refusing to engage with North Korea unless it offered concessions first, or until the regime collapsed from within.
North Korea's official news agency criticised Biden, and even adapted one of Trump’s preferred insults for his rival, “Sleepy Joe”.
"Rabid dogs like Biden can hurt lots of people if they are allowed to run about," KCNA said last year.
"They must be beaten to death with a stick."
Biden has dismissed Trump's "photo-ops" with Kim as a "vanity project", telling the New York Times he would only meet with the North Korean leader with "an actual strategy that moves the ball forward on denuclearisation".
A Biden presidency will likely signal a return to more normal diplomatic processes, said Lee Soo-hyuck, South Korea's ambassador to the US, with painstaking negotiations carried out at lower levels rather than top leaders trying to strike an all-encompassing deal in a few hours of talks.
Analysts said Pyongyang would likely have been following the election closely and contemplating the best moment to test its latest missile.
Ankit Panda, of the Carnegie Endowment, told Reuters as Biden takes over the White House, the beginning of 2021 will be a “sensible time”.
Any launch however would act as a reminder that going back to "the old Obama policy" will only mean "our capabilities will continue to expand", he added.
Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said North Korea would have everything ready, and said if it didn’t get the deal it hoped for they “will do a lot of testing”.
with Reuters and AFP