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SEOUL – With an unusually high-stakes United States presidential election imminent, risks look set to soar not only on restive US streets, but also around the flashpoint Korean peninsula.
And it may not only be risks that are soaring – it could be missiles, too.
That would mark a turnaround from the last three years. After North Korea engaged directly with a sitting US president for the first time in 2018, a relative quiet has prevailed in Pyongyang-Washington relations.
Of course, it has been a troubled “quiet.”
A hugely anticipated 2019 North Korea-US summit in Hanoi imploded and subsequent working-level talks froze solid. This year, Pyongyang unleashed multiple test barrages of short- and medium-range missiles, while rhetorical barrages aimed at US officials have spun off state media printing presses.
However, there have been no major physical provocations aimed at the US.
Instead, in a sign of good faith and possibly of his personal investment in an engagement strategy with US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stuck to his self-applied moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear tests.
Trump has repeatedly alluded to this moratorium as proof of the soundness of his unorthodox North Korean policy and his amicable relationship with Kim.
Could this quiet soon be shattered? Based on past form, it seems likely.
“After November 3, I think North Korea will revert back to classic policy – provocation, provocation and provocation until negotiations take place,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea research fellow at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute. “I think that is what is going happen – a reversion to the historical mean.”
Though North Korea has a reputation for unpredictability, it is actually one of the most consistent states on earth. And it has conducted arms tests in the early months of the last three US presidencies.
Barack Obama won his first presidential term on November 4, 2008, taking office on January 20, 2009. North Korea conducted a failed satellite launch on April 5, 2009, and a nuclear test on May 25, 2009.
Obama won his second term on November 6, 2012. On December 12, the North successfully launched a satellite into orbit.
Trump won the presidency on November 8, 2016, and entered office on January 20, 2017.
Eight tests were conducted between February and June that year, largely of medium-range ballistic missiles, before an ICBM was successfully tested on Independence Day, July 4. North Korea conducted its sixth, and so far final, nuclear test on September 3, 2017.
“They have been consistent for decades with their united-front tactics to divide and conquer, to get the US and other countries to acquiesce to their position and goals,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University.
“Whether it’s dialog or coercion or weapons tests, they will do that … I can’t pinpoint the timing, but there is a pattern of testing new heads of state.”
A provocation designed to signal North Korea’s relevance and put it front-of-mind among the foreign policy establishment could take various forms.
These range from low-key medium-range ballistic missile launches to a satellite launch, using dual-use ICBM technology as the booster vehicle, to a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test to an ICBM test, or yet another nuclear detonation.
An expanding arsenal
North Korea has also been quietly constructing some very high-profile new hardware.
On October 10, during an early-hours parade in Pyongyang, the regime showed off its largest ICBM ever, a transporter-erector-launcher vehicle to move the monster missile in and out of cover, and a new SLBM.
It is unclear if these weapons are operational or even test-worthy. It is possible they are mere mock-ups. But even if they are the latter, they indicate the future direction of North Korea’s strategic weapons development.
That must taken seriously, for North Korea has shown its ability to keep sharpening what it calls its “sacred sword” of nuclear deterrence. The nation has, over the last two decades, defied US pressure, international opprobrium and its own straitened economic circumstances to clear hurdle after hurdle on its successful quest to create viable nuclear devices and related delivery systems.
Questions hang over North Korean capabilities in terms of re-entry vehicles – an ICBM’s shielded warhead that carries the payload back into the earth’s atmosphere – and its guidance and targeting systems.
But Kim’s military is widely assessed to possess multiple warhead-sized nuclear devices, as well as ICBMs that can cross the Pacific.
All this points to an inexorable rise in capabilities that the next president will be forced to contend with.
“By the end of the next presidential term, North Korea will probably have reliable and tested and deployed ICMBs capable of penetrating US missile defense nets, at least partially,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
‘Kim for Trump’
Who might be the more palatable candidate for Pyongyang? Experts reckon that if Kim had a vote, he’d mark his ballot for the incumbent.
“They hope it will be Donald Trump so they can squeeze some concessions and some acceptance of their nuclear status out of him,” Lankov said. “If Biden is the next president, they will probably have no choice but to work with him, but I don’t think they can get much.”
Among the community of Pyongyangologists who monitor and analyze the signals emanating from both the North Korean capital and Washington DC, there is a belief that Trump, unencumbered by hawkish National Defense Advisor John Bolton, is primed to strike the kind of “small deal” with Kim that eluded him in Hanoi.
“If we have Trump, Kim will try to start a new round of talks,” said Lankov. “They will swap parts of their arms programs – probably nuclear or missile production facilities – for some concessions on sanctions.”
Such a deal would fall far short of the idealized “total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Still, optimists suggest that a deal would require the emplacement of a bilateral liaison framework, which could feasibly lay the groundwork for further progress via communication, trust-building and “baby-steps” progress.
Conversely, pessimists believe that any deal is ultimately doomed given North Korea’s absolute determination to maintain a strategic deterrent.
Beyond grandiose summits and slightly less grandiose deals, there is another reason for Kim to prefer Trump to remain in the White House.
It would provide a “once in a hundred years opportunity,” for North Korea, Pinkston said, given Trump’s “disruption and undermining of international cooperation and the South Korea-US alliance.”
Trump has demanded a renegotiation of the South Korea-US free trade agreement, sought to squeeze billions of dollars out of Seoul by raising the costs for US troops stationed in South Korea by hundreds of percentage points and pressured Seoul to follow Washington’s tech sanctions on Beijing.
And Pinkston argued that the socio-political tensions that have arisen in Trumpian America, combined with an ineffective Covid-19 response, have weakened the US.
“Authoritarian regimes – Erdogan’s, Xi’s, Putin’s – are sitting back and watching the US self-destruct,” Pinkston said. “Trump is horrible at negotiations and incoherent at policy, so of course, I am sure North Korea would want someone like him who is easily manipulated.”
Biden may be less risky than the unpredictable Trump, but is also likely less palatable to those in Pyongyang’s corridors of power, given that he was vice-president in the Obama administration, which deprioritized North Korea in its policy of so-called “strategic patience.”
“If Biden is next, they will probably greet him with an ICMB [test] flying over the Pacific, unless China explicitly bans that,” said Lankov. “Then they will try to talk to him as they know he will never authorize a strike against North Korea.”
Red button alert
It is unclear when North Korea might act, though previous experience suggests in the spring. Politically, the timing for some kind of fiery signal would be after early January in 2021.
Rachel Minjung Lee, a former US government analyst of open-source information about North Korea, predicts a party conference in early January in Pyongyang, presided over by Kim.
“They are going to take the time to review all their policies, domestic and foreign, and recalibrate as needed,” Lee said.
But systemically – if North Korea is to test a weapon – there may be issues to resolve.
Not only is the technical status of the new North Korean weapons – especially the SLBM – largely unknown, but the systems required to make them operational are also likely not yet in place.
“How you would use those assets and how you would integrate them is not trivial,” said Pinkston. “On the nuclear side, command and control issues are complicated: Who has custody of the weapons? When are they armed? Who has launch authority?”
For North Korea, these systems – which also apply within British, Chinese, French, Russian or US nuclear forces – are further complicated by two issues.
One is the existence of a triple-track command system that consists of military officers, political officers and the military’s own internal security command. The other is the fact that the Kim regime has customarily governed via a series of vertical hierarchies.
Now, armed with a plethora of dispersed weapons system, it has to create additional horizontal hierarchies.
And there are further reasons why Kim could remain quiet.
When Covid-19 appeared in China, North Korea – likely in recognition of the poverty of its national healthcare system – shuttered all its borders in an extreme quarantine tactic. For an economy that was already both poverty-wracked and heavily sanctioned, the emergency tactic likely added a triple whammy, by preventing cross-border trade with China.
“I think North Korea has a number of internal problems and issues so I don’t think they want to bite off more than they can chew and take on more external problems over the next six months or so,” said Pinkston.
Conversely, a world-shaking weapons test could help the regime rally waverers behind the flag.
“If you test a system, you cannot ignore that it is a signal externally and internally,” Pinkston said, adding that the wider world tends to overlook the latter audience.
“If there is disobedience or uncertainty about loyalty, conducting parades and tests demonstrates the awesome might of the leadership,” he said.