Conventional wisdom among Korea watchers dictates that Kim Jong-un will use provocations to raise North Korea as a priority for the incoming Biden administration and to shape Biden’s perception of North Korea as a nuclear force to be reckoned with. Indeed, it is logical that North Korea would respond to the reversion of U.S. policy toward North Korea to a more conventional, more institutionalized, and less personalized approach by returning to the bluffing, brinkmanship, and provocations that have characterized the country’s past welcome to new leaders such as Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Park Geun-hye, and Donald Trump.
However, it is ultimately in North Korea’s best interest to avoid provocations and leave the door open to dialogue with South Korea and the United States.
First, a return to provocations as North Korea’s primary mechanism for drawing international attention would signal weakness, not the intended message of strength. Renewed North Korean provocations would demonstrate that North Korea lacks confidence in the impressive across-the-board military improvements and nuclear deterrent it exhibited at a midnight parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Korean Worker’s Party last October.
North Korea has stressed that it will be a responsible nuclear weapons state, but a country confident in its nuclear deterrent need not engage in offensive provocations. Continued North Korean provocations such as renewed nuclear or ICBM tests would indicate that North Korea is neither fully confident in the ability of its nuclear deterrent to provide adequately for the country’s national defense nor willing to exercise the self-restraint necessary to assure others of North Korea responsibility as a nuclear actor.
Second, North Korean provocations would challenge China’s approach to North Korea. China currently prioritizes material support for North Korea based on geopolitical considerations over its interest in North Korea’s denuclearization. A North Korean ICBM or nuclear test would highlight Kim’s unreliability while providing the opportunity for the new Biden administration to win Chinese support for even stronger UN and bilateral sanctions toward North Korea.
Third, provocations would invite stronger isolation and pressure on North Korea at a moment when North Korea is already preoccupied with damage caused by natural disasters, failure to meet the economic goals outlined in its 2016 Five Year Plan, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The backlash of redoubled international pressure that would result from renewed provocations could exacerbate domestic economic and political difficulties and limit Kim Jong-un’s bandwidth to cope with the situation. Under these circumstances, Kim’s ability to mobilize a diplomatic lifeline to blunt the impact of political and economic isolation would be diminished, as he has spurned efforts to rebuild inter-Korean cooperation and literally demolished inter-Korean communication channels, will have no friend in the White House to write to, and has deepened his economic dependency on China.
Specialists argue that North Korea’s propensity to revert to provocations is so deeply embedded that it is part of the country’s DNA. Certainly, North Korea’s default mindset is that it is unconstrained by and unaccountable to the international system. But faced with dire domestic circumstances, if Kim really wants to project an image of confidence in his nuclear capabilities, the savvier option would be to bide his time while inviting the Biden administration to reestablish top-level crisis communications with North Korea on its own terms, as an entrenched nuclear state. Whether Kim does so will provide a clear test of whether provocations are part of Kim’s nature or whether he can, in fact, launch a strategy that poses a challenge to the Biden administration that might prove more formidable than the reflex response of engaging in provocations.
Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.
Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 18th Meeting of the Political Bureau of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on September 30, 2020. KCNA/via REUTERS.