North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's hard-line statements about his country's relationship with the United States and planned weapons program advances reflect Pyongyang's long-term policy of building up its offensive capabilities as a means of protecting its interests and as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. Their timing does not reflect a shift in North Korea's approach to U.S. relations or an impending return to 2017-style intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear tests, but instead acts as a reminder to the incoming administration that North Korea outreach cannot be neglected. Pyongyang will most likely maintain its wait-and-see approach to feel out the new Biden administration before crossing red lines with ICBM or nuclear tests.
As part of the ongoing Eighth Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un issued a report Jan. 9 reviewing the implementation of domestic and external policies over the past five years since the 2016 Party congress. This included labeling the United States as the country's "foremost principal enemy," an outline of the successes in "consolidating the state's nuclear war deterrent" and pledges for further weapons system advances.
Kim called for advances in North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, calling for smaller and lighter nuclear warheads, improved ICBM precision, and solid-fuel missiles for maritime and land launch. He also ordered the military to further the development of a nuclear-powered submarine. South Korean intelligence agencies also detected signs that North Korea had carried out an unpublicized, late-night military parade late Jan. 10 timed with the Party congress.
Kim also mentioned civilian nuclear power development and development of military reconnaissance satellites — both sectors North Korea has repeatedly emphasized its rights to develop under international law. Both of these, however, could allow North Korea to advance its nuclear and potentially missile programs without the international community accusing it of overtly hostile intent.
The incoming Biden administration will present challenges for North Korea to make progress in the stagnant U.S. relationship, marking a clear transition away from the Trump administration's personal, transactional approach to North Korea, which had opened a small window for a deal in recent years. This will be particularly difficult given Biden's likely near-term focus on shifting U.S.-Iran relations, the U.S.-China relationship and domestic issues related to COVID-19. While Pyongyang will seek to maintain U.S. attention and seek to compel the U.S. to address its grievances, however, it will be careful not to move too precipitously back toward aggressive behavior in order to avoid alienating not only Washington but also damaging all-important relations with China and, to a lesser extent, South Korea and Russia.
On U.S. relations, Kim noted that U.S. hostile policies toward North Korea would not change regardless of the administration in power — his first acknowledgment of the impending transition to the Biden administration. Although he emphasized North Korea's weapons capabilities, Kim said North Korea would adopt a policy of "responding to force with force, and to good will with good will," not ruling out diplomacy.
Kim's remarks also included extensive details of the country's economic successes and failures, later referring to a harsh international environment in which the United States and its allies have made "frantic maneuvers to pressurize and blockade" North Korea. North Korea's dire economic circumstances due to international sanctions, COVID-19, crop failures and natural disasters are a key motivator for Pyongyang to make progress in securing the removal of sanctions. Its weapons program is a major bargaining chip in this, but overly aggressive testing also risks provoking further international outcry and isolation.
In North Korea, Kim Jong Un Takes a Hard Line on U.S. Ties, Weapons 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.