U.S. President Joe Biden is set to host South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a five-day visit beginning later this week. The summit meeting between Presidents Biden and Moon will mark just the second such meeting that Biden has engaged in since coming to office. The summit follows the Biden administration’s recent revelation of the results of its months-long North Korea policy review, and comes on the heels of North Korean tests of both cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), its first such launches since the Biden administration took office.
Would North Korea Consider Causing Trouble?
There are strong reasons to believe that North Korea will not engage in any sort of coercive or provocative actions during the summit. Most notably, North Korea is still likely assessing the Biden administration’s new policy, about which there remains little specific information. Rather than carry out a provocative action during the Biden-Moon summit, some experts have predicted that North Korea is more likely to wait until closer to the start of the U.S.-ROK joint military exercises slated to begin later this summer before it pulls the trigger on additional weapons testing or some other inflammatory action.
Still, the possibility for some sort of North Korean action during the summit cannot be dismissed entirely.
While it remains too early to fully assess the administration’s North Korea policy, one aspect that some experts have pointed to as potentially problematic is its lack of a clear mechanism or plan for bringing North Korea to the negotiating table. Officials involved in the policy review have seemingly admitted as much, acknowledging that a particularly acute challenge the policy will have to address is how to generate and sustain momentum for diplomatic negotiations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since indicated that the ball is in North Korea’s court with regards to kicking off any sort of diplomatic talks.
North Korea, however, is more likely to seek to place the onus for beginning diplomatic negotiations back on the United States by continuing to demonstrate that time is on its side through further advancements in its ballistic missile capabilities. This was in part why North Korea’s recent unveilings of new weapons systems, including its newest model of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), was so significant; not only had the U.S. and multilateral sanctions regimes failed to curtail the DPRK’s ballistic missile program, they had failed to prevent North Korea from building its largest missile yet. North Korea could see the first meeting between President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart as a particularly intriguing opportunity to once again demonstrate this reality.
This does not mean that anybody should expect a North Korean ICBM launch in the coming days. Instead, North Korea is more likely – either during the summit or at whatever point in the future it chooses to again resume missile testing – to stick to what appears to be a clear and logical strategy. North Korea’s recent SRBM launch not only demonstrated continued development of its ballistic missile capabilities, but it also made clear that North Korea would not face any significant reprisal from either the United States or the international community. North Korea is now likely to look to replicate that success with additional tests of other weapons systems while working its way towards tests of larger ballistic missiles.
Recent activity at North Korea’s Sinpo South Shipyard has led some analysts to speculate about the possibility of an official unveiling of North Korea’s experimental ballistic missile submarine or a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test. Any further progress in North Korea’s SLBM capabilities would in and of itself be consequential, but would also be particularly significant because of the progress that the successful launching of one of North Korea’s newest models of SLBMs would indicate with regards to the DPRKs continued development of solid fuel engines for its ballistic missiles. This could, in turn, eventually lead to North Korea’s development of a solid fuel ICBM, which would represent a concerning breakthrough.
There are very compelling reasons why North Korea will likely wait before it carries out any significant missile testing. In particular, North Korea likely sees value in continuing to feel out the Biden administrations new policy before it jumps back into major weapons testing. North Korea could, however, see the upcoming Biden-Moon summit as an ideal opportunity for it to once again demonstrate that time is on its side and that it has the upper hand through, for example, a test launch of an SLBM.
Eli Fuhrman is a contributing writer for The National Interest.