An analysis of recent and near future North Korean
political and military activities
North Korea watchers have been kept busy in recent months with a spate of activity and statements coming from the North.
Between issues to do with hotlines, testing of new missiles, activity at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and important statements around the UN General Assembly meeting, Pyongyang has kept those of us busy who keep an eye on it. With the Japanese election imminent in November, the Beijing Winter Olympics coming up next February, and the ROK presidential election set for March next, it’s worth considering what North Korea’s recent behaviour might portend for the next six months.
First, the highlights over the past few months:
- The crisis hotline between North and South Korea was reconnected on 17 July after an 18-month hiatus, disconnected (mid-August) and reconnected again (4 October).
- North Korean claimed tests of a new ‘strategic’ cruise missile on 11-12 September.
- On 13 September, the IAEA Director General reported to the quarterly Board of Governors concerns over indications the North may have re-started operation of the 5Mwe nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Commercial satellite imagery also indicates the reactor may have been active during the period 24 August – 9 September.
- On 15 September, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles from mobile railway carriages (on same day ROK Navy conduct successful SLBM launch from an underway submarine).
- On 24 September, Kim Jo-Yong – sister of Kim Jong-Un – stated that the North is willing to consider another inter-Korean summit if ‘mutual respect’ can be assured.
- On 27 September, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile which North Korea claims has a hypersonic warhead.
- On 29 September, Kim Jong-Un called for improved relations with the ROK, re-opening of hotline to Seoul and discounted resuming dialogue with the US (in response to President Biden’s September call for ‘talks without conditions’).
- On 12 October, Kim Jong-Un denounced US hostility towards the North, and the ROK’s recent missile tests.
- On 19 October, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile from a submerged experimental ballistic submarine.
The above diary entries represent a familiar pattern. Statements and actions by Pyongyang around key events, in this case the UN General Assembly meeting (the 76th Session opened on 14 September), and key visits to North Asia by key officials – including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to ROK on 15 September and US Special Representative Sung Kim in Tokyo for three-way talks with Japan and ROK on 14 September – is standard North Korean behaviour. Business as usual it may be, but the tempo of activity in recent times suggests Pyongyang is setting the stage for further actions.
Before looking at what these actions might be it is worth noting five themes that provide important context when trying to understand Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea.
Kim’s main concern is the North Korean economy. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) still gets its share – enough to keep KPA generals happy – but Kim Jong-Un appears to understand that the economy and the relative well-being of the North Korean leadership cadre and the broader population is key to ensuring the Kim dynasty endures (which is fundamentally what this whole game is about).
Since 2016 Kim Jong-Un has consistently emphasised the primacy of economic reform. This was again evident in work reports delivered during the January 2021 8th Party Congress of the Korean Worker’s Party.
COVID19, poor weather/poor summer harvests, and international sanctions undermine this ambition but, rather than take steps that might lead to a lifting of sanctions (which would mean entering denuclearisation talks in good faith), Pyongyang continues to double-down on its nuclear and missile strike capabilities, hoping it can lift economic performance in the face of sanctions and international pressure. Much of what we have witnessed in North Korea these past months reflect this outlook.
The contemporary commentary concerning the leadership of Kim Jong-Un – his absences, his weight loss, the role of his sister Kim Yo-Jong, and the reports of personnel changes within the leadership of the Korean Worker’s Party and KPA – might lead one to believe Kim’s rule is threatened and insecure. The opposite is more likely, with the Kim family’s grip on power perhaps tighter now than at any time since Kim Jong-Un’s father, Kim Jong-Il, suffered debilitating strokes in 2008.
Kim’s weight loss can more plausibly be put down to exercise and diet rather than illness, and his sister’s rise to prominence most likely reflects his need for another family member to assist him in exercising the authority of the Kim family (he is short on living siblings). We can assume that Kim does not regard Kim Jo-Yong as a threat, and so she has some authority to give voice to Kim’s edicts. As for the spate of leadership changes again, this is probably best regarded as Kim seeking to reward his leadership cadre rather than the paranoid actions of a leader seeking to keep his deputies guessing – although this is a not unhelpful incidental effect of the changes.
The Stimson Centre’s North Korea project, 38 North, characterise these leadership changes as Kim seeking to create some organisational capacity and centralised governance, rather than a reflection of turmoil and instability. It is a reasonable judgement.
The key deduction from this is that we are dealing with a leader who is confident in his own skin, literally and figuratively. This might mean in the future we will see bold steps on the part of Kim Jong-Un, but equally, he may appreciate he has much to lose and he needs to be careful not to overstep the mark.
Development of strike weapons
In September we were reminded of the North’s ongoing efforts to improve its strike and deterrence capabilities. Each of the three tests (cruise missiles, railway car-launched SRBM, and hypersonic missile) featured breakout technologies (or techniques in the case of the railway launch system) for the KPA. Significantly, these developments were signalled by Kim Jong-Un at the 8th Party Congress where he expressed an intent to develop cruise and hypersonic missiles. The KPA will want to conduct more test launches before Kim can tick that box.
While each future launch will have a specific capability objective, launches will also be conducted with the external audience in mind, to remind capitals of the North’s growing strike and deterrence capabilities. As in September, the timing of these tests is almost always significant and aimed to achieve an influence objective of Pyongyang’s. It should be noted that in the same report to the Party Congress, Kim Jong-Un mentioned the development of solid-propellant ICBMs, long-range SLBMs, and ‘multiple warhead rockets’ – weapons we are yet to see tested.
As an aside, it is worth noting there is something of a mini-arms race emerging in north-east Asia. Amidst the North’s missile launches, the ROK successfully launched an SLBM of its own and released footage of testing of new, advanced cruise and ballistic missile systems. The North of course countered with a SLBM launch of their own. And at the same time, in his maiden speech, Prime Minister Kishida of Japan noted the need to bolster missile defences (in response to North Korea).
These responses will assist the North legitimise testing of its own missile systems and will fuel Kim Jong-Un’s narrative that the North’s weapons developments are necessary defensive measures. Kim’s remarks criticising the ROK’s weapons developments on 11 October during celebrations to mark the 76th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party reflect this narrative.
Kim appears to be in a hurry to develop more advanced strike weapons. The successful 11/12 September launches of a low-flying cruise missile that can stand off and threaten targets throughout the ROK and possibly parts of Japan is significant. That the North has described this as a ‘strategic weapon’, a term usually reserved to describe its nuclear or inter-continental ballistic missile capabilities, may indicate an intent to match nuclear warheads to this new capability. While we need to watch for further cruise missile and hypersonic missile testing, we should expect Kim to make good on his undertaking to the Party Congress to develop and test the new longer-range ballistic missile systems.
In a similar vein we should not expect the North to do anything other than to continue its slow march down the nuclear path. There is nothing to suggest the North is prepared to forego its status as a nuclear-armed state, with Kim Jong-Un personally invested in this capability following his rebuff of a potential grand bargain with the US at the 2018 Summit meetings with former US President Trump.
With the North already in possession of sufficient weapons grade plutonium to make between 20-60 nuclear weapons according to former IAEA inspector Dr Siegfried Hecker, there seems little need for the North to make anything other than incremental changes in its nuclear facilities as they maintain what we might describe as a minimum viable plutonium production capability.
But resource constraints will limit the North’s ambitions. While the North may hope to commission the experimental light water reactor at Yongbyon in order to generate electricity (the reason the plant was provided to the North in the first place), this probably remains out of reach due to the lack of supplies and expertise. While it is unlikely that the North has developed a ballistic missile warhead that can survive the heat and turbulence of re-entry and thus provide the North an inter-continental nuclear strike capability against countries such as the US, it has other options to deliver nuclear warheads, and so they will continue to develop these warheads and steadily build their deterrent arsenal.
In late 2019 Pyongyang announced the end of its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing – recall the North’s public ‘destruction’ of the nuclear test site at Punggye in 2018, ahead of the first summit meeting with former President Trump – and long-range ballistic missile tests. While a nuclear test is not in prospect, especially before the ROK Presidential election, further tests are probably an inevitability. It’s only a matter of when.
The provocation cycle remains a key tool
The final theme is the North’s use of provocations and threats, mixed with faux back-down and concessions, to influence and leverage external parties. These are intended to deliver positive outcomes for Pyongyang that are otherwise unachievable while it remains a pariah state.
The North has little choice but to continue to use this blunt instrument, wielding it at a time most opportune and against a select target audience. The recent missile tests should be considered as provocations. The purpose of them was to simply remind capitals and policy makers (remember the key activities occurring at the same time of the launches) that the North has a legitimate strike capability that it is evolving to be more survivable – thus improving its deterrence value.
If the activity over the last few months is considered normal by North Korean standards, what might we see over coming months?
The China Factor
The ROK elections and Beijing Winter Olympics will generate a North Korean response, but it is important to note that some of these actions will not be obvious. For example, we might expect Pyongyang to seek to extract some concessions from Beijing in exchange for not conducting provocations (missile tests, nuclear activity, provocative statements) in the lead-up to the Games.
With the North having secured renewed expressions of security backing from President Xi in mid-2021 to mark the 60th anniversary of the PRC-DPRK Mutual Defence Treaty, Kim Jong-Un may feel confident to leverage Beijing in the lead-up to the Games.
Watching the Pyongyang–Beijing dynamic in the lead up to the Games and as the North relaxes COVID-19 induced border controls will be instructive. Watch this space.
Hoping for a Democratic win in the ROK
Pyongyang’s interactions with Seoul will be significant, especially during the run-in to a hotly contested Presidential poll in the South. In the remaining months of his tenure, ROK President Moon Jae-In will do what he can to revive positive relations with the North in order to establish his legacy and to boost the chances of the ruling Democratic Party in the 2022 Presidential poll. During his five-year term, President Moon has worked tirelessly to restore some positive features of North-South relations – his two leader summits with Kim Jong-Un most notable.
Pyongyang will sense a closing opportunity to engage with President Moon and, while we will see rhetoric – such as that targeting the ROK’s recent missile tests – Kim Jong-Un is likely to continue to press for dialogue and serious discussion about a peace treaty. Kim’s key aim appears to be to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, and to do what he can to weaken the strategic relationship. But the window is closing and Kim knows that, especially if the opposition and conservative People Power Party win office in March 2022 which would return a hard-line to Seoul.
Following the ROK presidential election, Pyongyang may aim to test the new president – regardless of political persuasion – through a renewed provocation cycle. We are very unlikely to see a return to deadly attacks such as we saw in 2010 with the sinking of ROK ship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Do, but all other options are probably on the table; from threatening language, cyber-attacks against ROK interests, further missile tests, and other military activity.
Strategic Provocations and the US
What we might call ‘strategic provocations’, those involving nuclear tests, ramping up activity at Yongbyon or other nuclear facilities, or long-range ballistic missile testing, are principally aimed at the US. Once the Olympics and ROK elections have concluded, we should not be surprised to see Pyongyang return to this kind of brinkmanship. Kim Jong-Un will harbor disappointment that the two summit meetings with former President Trump did not yield a positive outcome, and that the Biden administration has returned to a position less susceptible to manipulation.
While Kim was boosted by being seen as an equal on the world stage with the former US President, then brazenly rebuffing denuclearisation talks, he nonetheless came away empty-handed. President Biden has stated he is happy to resume dialogue with Pyongyang ‘without preconditions’, but Kim Jong-Un will regard this as a bluff. He has stated that he is only willing to meet if there are substantive issues to discuss.
Presumably they mean issues other than denuclearisation, for this is one topic Kim is very unlikely to discuss with the US with any sincerity. As ROK-US military activity on the peninsula resumes (after being frozen during the Trump administration) we can expect Pyongyang to threaten action. These moments may prove to be triggers for a return to strategic provocations.
A dynamic period in north-east Asian security is upon us. For those in policy-making and leadership roles in capitals that have a stake in north-east Asian stability and security, thoughtful analysis, and adroit policy, that includes close consultation with allies and partners will be the order of the day.
This article appeared in the Sept-Dec 2021 issue of ADBR.