North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s speech at a highly unusual defense exhibition this week has offered a hint of what to expect in the coming months and comes in the wake of a September that saw the nuclear-armed country test a variety of powerful new weapons.
Addressing top North Korean officials with the regime’s most advanced new weapons looming nearby, Kim spoke of a need to “steadfastly safeguard peace” in response to the United States’ “hostile policies” and South Korea’s growing military power by “steadily developing” what he repeatedly called a “powerful defense capability.”
In pushing for that development, analysts say, Kim is positioning his country to ride out both the COVID-19 pandemic and the term of the current U.S. administration, which appears unlikely to offer the kind of concessions he has long sought. At the same time, the North’s leader is normalizing weapons tests and cementing his regime’s status as a de facto nuclear power.
Normalizing weapons tests
Marking the 76th anniversary of the North’s ruling party, Monday’s “Defense Development Exhibition” — which Kim called “an epoch-making demonstration” of his country’s national strength “no less significant than a large-scale military parade” — featured an array of weapons that Kim said were developed over the past five years. These included two as-yet-untested projectiles: the Hwasong-16 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which ranks among the world’s largest, and the Pukguksong-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which debuted at a military parade in January.
In recent weeks, North Korea has tested a range of increasingly powerful new weapons systems. These have included a long-range cruise missile believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to Japan, as well as a train-launched weapon and what the North said was a hypersonic gliding vehicle. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.
Just one of the weapons tested — the hypersonic glider — was outlined by Kim at a rare ruling party congress in January, where he revealed an unusually detailed list of arms that the country was developing. That list included both tactical and “super large” nuclear weapons, solid-propellant ICBMs and SLBMs, and nuclear-powered submarines.
Will at least some of the weapons on the list be tested, or at least shown off in some form in the near future? Experts say that is almost certain to happen amid the current environment.
“I would expect North Korea to conduct testing that would advance the capabilities that Kim Jong Un outlined in his January report,” Frank Aum, an expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, said, adding that it would “likely start with less provocative measures and only move toward more provocative ones if Washington doesn’t seem to be budging on its policy.”
But any sudden shift toward more inflammatory moves — such as testing ICBMs capable of hitting the U.S. — will still remain an option for Kim. The North has studiously avoided testing longer-range weapons, despite Kim’s statement in 2019 that he was no longer bound by his 2018 pledge to “suspend” those tests.
Joshua Pollack, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program and a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said Kim could test a long-range solid-fueled missile from the sea and still technically abide by his self-declared moratorium.
“This might be why they describe their planned solid-propellant ICBM as also being an SLBM — that way, they could test it from the sea only, but deploy it on land as well,” he said.
Kim is also believed to be reaping other less visible benefits from testing. Experts say that the repeated tests have inoculated his regime from international criticism as they become normalized.
“The steady pattern of tests seems like the opposite of shocking,” said Pollack. “It gets us all used to these events and makes it less likely that the international community will overcome its divisions long enough to mount an effective response.”
By testing relatively short-range systems early on, the North Koreans can provide a wealth of information to defense scientists without triggering strong responses from key players, Pollack added. That way, they “can work their way up the ladder, so no single step is such a departure from the last that we can all agree they’ve crossed a line.”
‘Strategic patience 2.0’
Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of the United States’ North Korea policy earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly said that it harbors no hostile intent toward Pyongyang and is prepared to meet unconditionally, with a goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Negotiations with the North over its nuclear program have been stalled since the breakdown of working-level talks in October 2019. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, held three meetings with Kim in a failed attempt to reach a wide-ranging denuclearization deal.
The Biden White House says North Korea has not responded to its calls to “engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.”
Kim, however, has lambasted these entreaties, using his speech Monday to lay into Washington over its joint military exercises with Seoul, which his regime views as a rehearsal for invasion, and for helping “upgrade the fighting efficiency” of the South Korean military.
“Recently, the United States has frequently sent signals that it is not hostile to our state, but its behaviors provide us with no reason why we should believe in them,” he said.
At least on paper, Biden’s approach appears to differ from former President Barack Obama’s, known as “strategic patience,” under which Washington ratcheted up sanctions and denied engagement with a goal of forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
Critics, however, fear the current policy is “strategic patience 2.0” and will produce a similar result: Pyongyang further ramping up its nuclear and missile development.
Aum, who characterized Biden’s current policy as “a passive, reactive and cautious approach that is calibrated to respond to North Korean actions,” said any changes in the current stalemate over the next several months appeared unlikely until one or both sides become more flexible in their behavior.
North Korea has long sought relief from crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions over its nuclear weapons program that have suffocated its economy.
“Either North Korea needs to be willing to engage, either virtually or in person after it feels confident about its COVID situation, or the U.S. needs to be more proactive about engaging,” said Aum, who previously served as the senior adviser for North Korea in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense. He suggested sharing potential ideas for concessions through a letter from Biden to Kim or using Seoul or Beijing as an intermediary.
Still, if past behavior is any indication of what lies ahead, more fireworks could be in the cards — all previous major U.S.-North Korea agreements have been preceded by provocations and tensions.
“To avoid this provocation-negotiations cycle, one or both sides need to make unilateral concessions,” Aum said. “If this doesn’t happen, then we’ll likely see North Korea and the U.S. trading provocations (and) countermeasures until it gets to a crisis point that warrants negotiations.”
But one factor likely to be crucial in determining how the diplomatic dance ultimately unfolds, analysts say, will be what impact the pandemic has on Kim’s thinking.
The North sealed the country’s borders in January 2020, when COVID-19 was first emerging as an international health concern. While Pyongyang has not officially declared any cases of the deadly virus, Kim is widely believed to view the pandemic as more of an existential threat to his regime than the sanctions that have battered his country’s economy.
“The biggest question hanging over North Korea today is when they will relax their self-imposed blockade,” Pollack said. “Until they do that, sanctions won’t actually matter that much, and there won’t be any incentives for them to reconsider their current policy.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.