“You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw” – Vladimir Lenin
Specific predictions of North Korea’s actions in the coming months, such as the timing of a potential Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch, are unwise. Though North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is neither irrational or uniquely unpredictable, complex variables are likely to influence his decision-making—including signals and actions from a still-transitioning U.S. presidential administration. Therefore, it is far more useful to forecast the motivations behind Kim’s likely approach toward the United States than it is to attempt predictions.
That said, there is no shortage of opinions about what approach to expect from Pyongyang in the months ahead.
A range of commentators contend that Kim will soon conduct a strategic weapons test to get the Biden Administration’s “attention.” Like editorial cartoons that depict a baby Kim “rattling” a missile, the idea of Kim craving US attention is both pervasive and intuitive. Unfortunately, this line of thinking can reduce Kim to a caricature “problem child” throwing a tantrum and “acting out,” rather than providing any useful insights on Kim’s strategic decision-making calculus.
Meanwhile, a body of analysis suggests a North Korean “provocation” is likely to come soon, given historical patterns around U.S. presidential transitions. Unfortunately, the causality behind this pattern is unclear, and even the term “provocation” itself is problematic. Besides encompassing widely varying actions, the term implies intent to “provoke” a reaction. Recent “provocations” like ballistic missile launches in 2019 and 2020 garnered little international reaction even as they advanced North Korea’s solid-propellant missile program. The profile of these launches and accompanying messaging suggest they were orchestrated to limit, rather than incite, US reactions.
Other commentators—particularly some aligned with South Korea’s Moon Administration—optimistically anticipate a quiet cry for help from Pyongyang rather than an angry cry for attention. They point to recent signs of restraint on Pyongyang’s part, and to domestic difficulties exacerbated by North Korea’s COVID lockdown and UN sanctions, to argue that Kim is likely to seek negotiations for relief and therefore reluctant to risk a confrontation. Some of these optimists expect that South Korea’s conciliatory approach, combined with the prospects for outreach from the Biden Administration, will sustain Kim’s current restraint through 2021. Although this hypothesis has its logic, it seems to be rooted in wishful thinking rather than a realistic appraisal based on the Kim regime’s likely priorities and its patterns of behavior.
North Korea’s economic situation looks to be tough, but not yet truly dire—particularly not by North Korean standards—making it unlikely to override the priority Kim has placed on nuclear weapons. Though North Korea’s lockdowns of its land border have led to a steep drop in documented commerce with China, seaborne traffic has enabled both quiet aid deliveries and extensive illicit trade. Meanwhile, North Korea’s repeated rejections of medical supplies and food aid from South Korea suggest that North Korea is getting enough from China to get by, at least to Kim’s satisfaction.
If Kim is not facing a truly desperate domestic situation, he is far more likely to seek to establish a position of strength vis a vis Washington than to risk appearing to be a supplicant in need of relief. Kim wants potential negotiations to be on his terms—probably still intending to lock-in North Korea’s nuclear-armed status by exchanging only partial denuclearization steps for key U.S. concessions. Whether or not Kim believes the incoming administration is likely to accept such a deal is an open question, but he would want to go into negotiations in a strong position to pursue this aim.
To establish a position of strength, Kim must show that sanctions will not shake his resolve nor prevent weapons advancement—a point Kim attempted to drive home at the October military parade. Another pillar of a strong position would be reinforced proof of North Korea’s capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon, one of his longstanding goals. An ICBM launch, particularly a successful test-flight of the new “monster missile” that demonstrated multiple-warhead capability, would simultaneously serve both purposes.
However, an ICBM launch could also pose risks to North Korea’s position. Based on President-elect Biden’s comments so far and his nominees, Pyongyang probably feels it has a general idea of what to expect, and neither great optimism nor fear. However, Kim might worry that an ICBM launch could harden Washington’s stance and lead it to successfully mobilize support from Beijing and Seoul for significantly increased pressure on Pyongyang.
Therefore, before conducting an ICBM launch or other major strategic weapons test, Pyongyang is likely to probe through more limited and ambiguous actions—such as short-range launches or other saber-rattling—to test international limits of tolerance and reactions, particularly in Washington, Beijing and Seoul. From Kim’s perspective, the ideal response to these probes would probably be one that provides sufficient evidence of “US hostile policy” to provide a pretext for further escalation, without moving Beijing to dramatically increase pressure.
There are other political and technical advantages to resuming limited forms of testing—such as ground-based engine testing or launching ballistic missiles short of ICBMs. This would be a low-risk way to probe Biden Administration responses and see if it will sustain or challenge the 2019 and 2020 precedents of accepting these contraventions of UN resolutions. Meanwhile, such tests could still advance other useful weapons capabilities, and might even allow testing of components later used in an ICBM test. Tests of the Hwasong-12 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, for example, provided a stepping stone to later Hwasong-14 and -15 ICBM launches.
We cannot rule out that Kim would be more aggressive, and abruptly shock the world with an ICBM launch, similar to his January 2016 nuclear test. Between his comments a year ago that he is “no longer bound” by pledges not to test ICBMs, propaganda drumbeats on “advancing strategic capabilities” and the October parade, Kim may feel he has given sufficient warning and justification. However, given Kim’s patterns since 2016, it seems far more likely that he will incrementally escalate.
During this period of probing and testing, there may also be North Korean actions that Kim did not intend to escalate. What might appear as “provocations” could be incidents that are not centrally directed or activities that end up gaining far more attention than planned. Pyongyang’s belligerence, criminal activity and human rights abuses mean that even routine North Korean behavior could inflame into a public crisis if an incident receives a critical mass of media attention.
Though the regime seeks a tight control on military escalation, North Korean military personnel can make mistakes, or over-zealously execute orders. The most recent probable example was the shooting of a South Korean official at sea in September, for which Kim later apologized. In the more freewheeling and gray areas of cyber activity and intelligence, it is even easier to envision a situation going further than planned. For example, a cyberattack intended for a specific target could take down a network instead.
If past is prologue, the Biden Administration will soon be faced with new and difficult challenges from the Kim regime. North Korean activities will push the limits of U.S. tolerance in complex, ambiguous situations, for which Pyongyang will blame US hostility—fueling debate in Washington and the international community about to respond. Meanwhile, Beijing and Seoul will probably have a more sympathetic view of Pyongyang’s motivations, see North Korea’s transgressions in less severe terms, and favor restraint.
Whether or not Kim Jong-un orders a major weapons test early in the Biden Administration’s tenure, North Korea will nevertheless be probing and testing, and probably seeking the right conditions to escalate to testing an ICBM at acceptable risk. It will not be a simple matter to organize international responses that dissuade Pyongyang from escalating further—particularly with all the other urgent issues the new Administration will be facing—but how the Biden Administration responds to North Korea’s probes will likely be crucial to shaping North Korea’s behavior in the next four years.
Markus V. Garlauskas led the U.S. intelligence community’s strategic analysis on North Korea as the National Intelligence Officer for North Korea from July 2014 to June 2020, after serving in U.S. Forces Korea for twelve years. Following the conclusion of his government appointment as a member of the Senior National Intelligence Service, he joined the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security of the Atlantic Council as a nonresident senior fellow affiliated with its Asia Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @Mister_G_2.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. Government agency.