Communist-run media in North Korea — the only legal means of accessing information in the country — mentioned the fact that the United States has a new president for the first time in an article published Saturday, referring to President Joe Biden’s certification as the election winner in passing.
The mention occurred in DPRK Today, a less visible government outlet than top newspaper Rodong Sinmun or the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), in reference to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, according to the South Korean news service Yonhap. No other North Korean news outlets have mentioned that Biden is the president of the United States at press time, meaning North Korean citizens have no legal means of knowing that information.
During the presidency of Barack Obama, which saw more North Korean nuclear weapons tests than any other presidency, and during Biden’s presidential campaign, state media insulted Biden with particular vigor. One especially offensive column in KCNA, typically the closest North Korea has to a hard news service, in 2019 referred to Biden as a “rabid dog” and urged his killing “as quickly as possible” with a stick.
“The U.S. Congress failed to declare Biden as the president on this day [January 6] and had to confirm Biden as the winner the following day,” Yonhap quoted DPRK Today as saying, detailing the events following the Capitol riot.
“This marks the first time a North Korean media outlet has mentioned Biden’s victory since he won the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 7 (Washington time),” Yonhap noted. “North Korean media outlets had remained mum on the issue even when its closest ally Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message of congratulations to Biden on Nov. 25.”
The South Korean outlet noted that North Korea often takes days to announce a changing of the guard in Washington, and often in passing in articles about other topics. North Korea opened the year with its eighth-ever Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Congress, which took up most of the attention of state media. The Party Congress is typically a chance for dictator Kim Jong-un to set the nation’s agenda for the next five years, promote or demote top officials as he wishes, and receive effusive praise for his alleged success as leader.
January’s event was somewhat different in that Kim opened it by acknowledging his government’s failures.
“Though the period of implementing the Five-Year Strategy for the National Economic Development ended last year, almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives,” Kim said in his opening remarks. Kim nonetheless ended the Congress by declaring success and debuting what North Korean state media called the “world’s most powerful weapon” at a crowded parade in Pyongyang, which outside observers identified as a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
North Korea has for years boasted of its illegal nuclear weapons program, claiming to have not just the active warheads but the missiles necessary to attack the United States. Kim typically refers to nuclear weapons in public remarks as a “war deterrent” and argues that they are necessary to prevent a full-scale assault of the country by America. North Korea and America — and China and South Korea, respectively — have technically been at war since 1950.
North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, four of them under Obama. Pyongyang’s last nuclear test occurred in September 2017, leading to President Donald Trump imposing unprecedentedly strict sanctions on the country. Trump’s administration also convinced the United Nations, notably including top North Korean ally China, to approve sanctions through the Security Council. Kim has not tested a nuclear weapon since.
Entering the White House, Biden and his diplomatic team have hinted at returning to Obama-era North Korea policies, which resulted in two-thirds of North Korea’s nuclear tests taking place during that time. South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo noted on the eve of Biden’s inauguration that he had tapped several “seasoned Obama-era officials” to lead his diplomatic team, hinting at a reversal in policy. High atop the list is Wendy Sherman, a Clinton-era diplomat who Biden has reportedly sought to appoint deputy secretary of state. While Sherman’s chief policy failure was her role as lead negotiator in the talks that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, Sherman also played a role in North Korea negotiations under President Bill Clinton.
“The return of veteran Obama administration officials signals a distancing from Trump’s personal diplomatic approach to the North, reified in his two unprecedented summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” JoongAng Ilbo noted.
Trump focused on isolating Kim Jong-un from his regime in his diplomacy, meeting with Kim on multiple occasions and maintaining direct contact outside of communications between low-level officials. Trump became the first president in the history of the United States to meet a North Korean dictator in 2018, engaging in direct talks with Kim in Singapore. A second meeting occurred a year later, but Trump abruptly walked out, claiming Kim’s team was too intransigent about lifting sanctions without any significant reduction in nuclear development on Pyongyang’s party.
Leftist South Korean President Moon Jae-in has encouraged Biden to follow Trump’s lead in the aftermath of the Singapore meeting, which resulted in a vaguely worded joint statement vowing further diplomacy from the two heads of state.
“The inauguration of the new Biden administration could be the impetus for a fresh start for both North-U.S. and inter-Korean dialogue,” Moon said shortly before Biden’s inauguration, referring to the Singapore Declaration as “a very important declaration in terms of denuclearization and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
A significant obstacle to such talks may be North Korean state media’s distaste for Biden personally.
“Rabid dogs like Baiden [sic] can hurt lots of people if they are allowed to run about. They must be beaten to death with a stick, before it is too late,” KCNA suggested in 2019.
“He is actually somewhat better than that,” Trump said of Biden in response to the attack.