With the impending Presidential transition, speculation has arisen regarding possible North Korean actions during the first several months of the Biden administration. Many have predicted some form of weapons test or other provocative action; a sound prediction, given North Korea’s track record of such provocations before and after U.S. presidential and midterm elections, as well as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s recent commitment to continue development of the country’s strategic weapons capabilities. Many analysts are particularly concerned with the potential for aggressive North Korean behavior in the event that the Biden administration directs its attention elsewhere – a not unrealistic scenario, given the array of competing priorities that the administration will be faced with – and have predicted some form of major weapons test, likely involving an ICBM, in order to force attention onto North Korea.
Should North Korea choose to engage in some form of provocative activity, there will be a number of factors that will influence both the form such actions take and why it is undertaken, including pressures and constraints on Kim as well as his own personal tendencies and the options available to him. It is likely that these factors will combine in such a way as to convince Kim to avoid a large-scale provocation – at least in the near-term – and to instead engage in smaller-scale activities.
Testing the Limits
It is perhaps easy for some to dismiss Kim as irrational or overly-risk acceptant, and therefore prone to lash out with major attention-grabbing provocations. In truth, the cycles of provocation and diplomacy that characterize the DPRK’s foreign policy toward the U.S. are not unique to Kim Jong Un’s reign, and the above description fails to accurately capture the Young Marshall’s grasp of nuance and strategic thinking. Former CIA analyst Jung Pak has, for example, described Kim Jong Un as adept at utilizing several elements of North Korea’s assets – including its cyber capabilities and conventional military forces – in a well-calibrated manner to engage in provocations that fall below the threshold of triggering an armed U.S. response, due in no small part to a recognition that war with the United States would spell doom for the regime. Based on this assessment, one should not assume that Kim will necessarily default to a major provocation, but will instead begin at a lower rung on the escalatory ladder.
It’s not You, it’s Me (and China)
Kim’s decision to engage in provocative behavior – and how – will be shaped by more than just a lack of U.S. attention. Analysis of North Korean provocations during periods surrounding U.S. elections has shown that such actions are often driven by domestic concerns. Kim Jong Un’s recent promotion to the position of general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea – a position previously held only by his father, Kim Jong Il, to whom the title was awarded posthumously – and a recently unveiled portrait of Kim looking resplendent in a military uniform, may indicate a renewed attempt to bolster the cult of personality surrounding the Supreme Leader and an effort to demonstrate Kim’s authority as well as the power of the party and of the DPRK as a whole to domestic and international audiences. Some form of military provocation could serve these efforts, and may prove the primary motivating factor ahead of attention-grabbing from the United States.
Kim will also have to factor in his relationship with China, the DPRK’s most important ally. The relationship between the two has warmed considerably in recent months. Despite – or perhaps, because of – this, North Korea is likely to heed Chinese concerns or objections surrounding large-scale provocations and weapons testing; indeed, China’s preference is for stability, and this may have the effect of restraining Kim and limiting the scale of any North Korean provocation.
A Range of Options
Kim will have at his disposal a range of options should he choose to engage in some form of provocation. Kim could call upon North Korea’s increasingly robust cyber capabilities, or on conventional elements of the Korean People’s Army. During the recent Eighth Party Congress, Kim announced that research related to nuclear submarines was nearly complete, a capability that Kim claims will change the strategic balance; if this is true, he may choose to make some grand revelation of the progress made towards the realization of this capability. Beyond this, a recently revealed main battle tank and a new air defense missile system, which represent significant advancements in North Korea’s conventional warfighting capabilities, could form the backbone of major military exercises designed to highlight the threat posed by the country’s large, forward deployed military. North Korea could as well conduct a missile test or demonstration short of a major ICBM test. The recently completed deployment of the Kumsong-3 anti-ship cruise missile, and the subsequent distribution of annual training orders that emphasize the focus on asymmetrical capabilities like the Kumsong, sets up the new missile as a prime candidate for a major live-fire exercise. There are, as well, an array of short and medium-range ballistic missile systems that are ripe for testing. Far from being limited to a major ICBM test, Kim has options for provocative actions that range the escalatory-spectrum.
Even if Kim should feel compelled to action in an effort to refocus U.S. attention on North Korea, it is unlikely that he will do so with a highly-escalatory action such as an ICBM test. Indeed, Kim’s command of the tools at his disposal and his skill in calibrating provocative actions – as well as his understanding of the risks involved with escalating tensions with the United States – means he is far more likely to test and probe the limits of the new administration’s patience rather than jumping right into another saga of fire-and-fury. This will only be reinforced by the importance of North Korea’s relationship with China, which will serve as a brake on any overly-escalatory behavior. It will also be important to consider that provocations by North Korea may not be solely motivated by a desire to attract attention from the United States, but may also be the result of Kim’s efforts to shore up domestic support and legitimacy; in such a case, risking war with the United States may not prove necessary. Rather than expecting a major demonstration from the off, policymakers should prepare themselves for a smaller-scale, and gradually escalating, set of North Korean actions.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.