North Korea will likely refrain from reaching out to the United States for dialogue and from major strategic weapons system tests before the end of 2020 given the high degree of uncertainty around U.S. politics and Pyongyang's preoccupation with domestic economic issues. Any test by North Korea meant to shape international perceptions will fall short of these strategic-level tests and focus instead on additional tests of large-caliber multiple-rocket launcher systems, field tests of its road-mobile missile systems, or even of North Korea's submarine-launched ballistic missile program — all of which are less likely to run afoul of the United States.
Satellite imagery released Sept. 15 by 38 North of Sinpo South Shipyard appeared to show that a submersible test barge was missing from its normal position, raising the possibility that North Korea is preparing a SLBM test in the near future. South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman nominee Won In-choul said Sept. 16 that North Korea may test an SLBM to coincide with the Oct. 10 holiday marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of North Korea's ruling party. On Sept. 12, North Korea's KCTV broadcast and then deleted footage of past SLBM tests. There are alternative explanations for the imagery, and the missing test barge might in part be explained by recent typhoons, which saw the movement of other military equipment within the shipyard to protect it from damage. The barge may also be undergoing repairs.
From Pyongyang's perspective, there would be little reward in engaging in a major strategic test ahead of or just after the U.S. election given the low chances of an immediate shift in U.S. policy and the risk of stymieing chances for future dialogue. North Korea is focused primarily on economic issues given the headwinds of COVID-19 on trade, recent floods and the ongoing squeeze of international sanctions, meaning it will focus more on these internal issues and be wary of overly antagonizing the United States and risking any sanctions removal. Although sanctions relief is a top North Korean priority, Pyongyang is aware that this is unlikely to occur around the November election given that it would require a major shift in U.S. strategy. Minimal economic promises likely to be yielded by any near-term dialogue will do little to sway Pyongyang. Additionally, any promise made before the election risks being reversed if the Democrats win power in Washington.
North Korea is instead more likely to adopt a wait-and-see approach around the U.S. election, making any big moves following the January 2021 U.S. inauguration and the North Korean Party congress that same month. Pyongyang is more likely to conduct strategic tests of weaponry, as it will find outreach challenging regardless of the U.S. administration. If U.S. President Donald Trump wins reelection, early 2021 will see him likely preoccupied with internal U.S. social and political dynamics as well as with economic recovery from COVID-19, which is unlikely before the third quarter of 2021. Should he win, Joe Biden would face similar domestic economic and social challenges. But without the personal relationship Trump enjoys and with pressure from the left-wing of his party, Biden would be even less likely to accept outreach from Kim Jong Un in 2021.
North Korea Likely to Stay the Course Ahead of the U.S. Election is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.