North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been uncharacteristically quiet as the new Biden administration weighs its policy for the divided Korean peninsula, but there are signs that’s about to change, with Pyongyang’s propaganda operation springing into action this week to whip up popular enthusiasm over promised major advances in the country’s ballistic missile program.
The propaganda spike has triggered speculation that Mr. Kim’s regime may be preparing a barrage of provocations — including possible submarine-launched ballistic missile tests — aimed at cutting the legs out from whatever strategy the Biden White House announces following months of keeping the knotty problem of North Korea on the back-burner.
A new Congressional Research Service (CRS) analysis this week concluded that the Kim regime is focused on developing weapons capable of evading U.S. missile defenses in the region, including the advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system now deployed to South Korea.
More generally, the North has a history of nuclear saber-rattling when it feels it is not getting the proper attention from Washington and its allies, and tends to test new American presidents very early in their terms.
“North Korea’s progress with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) suggests an effort to counter land-based THAAD missile defenses by launching attacks from positions at sea outside the THAAD’s radar field of view,” said the CRS report.
While other regional defenses, including local Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense systems, “could likely still track” North Korean SLBMs, the CRS report emphasized that Pyongyang’s short-range missile capabilities have advanced through waves of tests carried out over the past two years.
With the North’s economy struggling and officials dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that outside analysts say is far bigger than the government has let on, a military diversion would be very much in keeping with the Kim playbook.
“There is a lot of speculation that there will be some kind of test launch,” said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Mr. Maxwell stressed a North Korean military provocation is “pure speculation” and refused to predict whether one may be imminent, he emphasized in an interview Thursday that the Biden team’s focus should be on anticipating what Mr. Kim hopes to achieve.
“[He] is probably focused on trying to have an impact on the Biden administration’s new North Korea policy,” Mr. Maxwell said. “If the regime does something, it will be an attempt to either make the new policy dead on arrival by conducting missile tests or to set the conditions so that if Biden wants his policy to work, he’s got to make concessions of some kind.”
“The real demand from Kim will be to get sanctions relief in return for promising to negotiate and to come to talks,” he said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s planned visit to Washington next month would be a ripe time for such a provocation, as would be the imminent release of the Biden’s administration’s new policy of the Korean problem.
“The question is, Will the Biden administration allow itself to be played by Kim Jong-un?” Mr. Maxwell said. “I don’t think they’re going to play to Kim’s pressures and ease sanctions.”
Mr. Biden has yet to lay out a North Korea policy after the intensely personal diplomacy pursued by President Trump stalled by the end of his term. The White House has been focused so far on other priorities, from the Iran nuclear deal and China to climate change, Ukraine and the war in Afghanistan.
While the administration has filled Nation Security Council desk positions on North Korea, the special envoy positions for North Korea and North Korean human rights issues remain unfilled. Mr. Biden has also yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea.
The Kim regime, meanwhile, already engaged in an initial round of provocations in late-March by carrying out four short-range ballistic missile launches that appeared to catch the U.S. off guard.
Mr. Biden sent mixed messages at his only full press conference to date, vowing there would be “responses” if the North Koreans chose to “escalate,” but adding, “I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result” of North Korea giving up its nuclear programs.
Mr. Trump pushed for a breakthrough denuclearization deal with the Kim regime. Pyongyang refrained from major weapons tests for most of Mr. Trump’s term, but no deal emerged and North Korea’s arsenal remains intact.
Analysts say it’s highly unlikely that Mr. Biden will pursue the kinds of high-stakes direct meetings with Mr. Kim that Mr. Trump favored. The new administration is instead expected to return to the policy of “strategic patience,” embraced during the final years of the George W. Bush administration and throughout the Obama years, when Mr. Biden was vice president.
The approach revolves around isolating Pyongyang through U.S. and United Nations economic sanctions, while taking care to avoid rewarding the Kim regime with any major diplomatic overtures for bad behavior.
Outsiders say that, so far, it’s not clear where Mr. Biden will come down.
“The messages that we’ve heard so far is that the policy will be centered around diplomacy with greater consultation with allies,” Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, said during a webinar hosted by the center this week.
“That’s obviously a lot of broad strokes,” said Ms. Town, who heads the center’s 38 North Program focused on North Korea. “What does diplomacy mean? Will that be top-down, bottom-up or some combination of [both]? Will it be multilateral or at least trilateral — to include South Korea as Seoul had wanted back in 2018?”
“Will diplomacy include summits? And what is the timeline for that? These are all questions that have no answers yet, at least to the public,” she added.
Kim’s mixed messages
There is also uncertainty over how closely the administration is consulting with South Korea’s Mr. Moon, a longtime proponent of diplomatic outreach to the North whom U.S. hardliners accuse of seeking to appease the Kim regime.
There have also been mixed messages from Pyongyang, which is believed to be under severe lockdown measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, Mr. Kim spurred international speculation by publicly calling for another “arduous march” to fight major economic difficulties — for the first time comparing the current situation in North Korea to the devastating famine that gripped the country in the 1990s.
Heightening anxiety about Mr. Kim’s next move has been an uptick in regime propaganda about ballistic missile and satellite launches. The South Korea-based publication NK News, which first reported on the development Thursday, said the government’s message was aimed at “hyping up the North Korean population for possible launches this year.”
The regime has created a new video featuring “3-D animations of a satellite launch and an apparent SLBM launch for a special propaganda film,” NK News reported: “New propaganda shows that North Korea is steadily growing more comfortable with promoting its new long-range missile and aerospace inroads.”
While the CRS report noted that North Korea is still observing a “self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing” put in place after the first Trump-Kim summit in 2018, it stressed that “recent ballistic missile tests and an October 2020 military parade suggest that North Korea is continuing to build a nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defenses.”
“Congress may choose to examine U.S. policy in light of these advances,” said the report that described Pyongyang’s ballistic missile test program as appearing to be geared toward developing capabilities to “defeat or degrade the effectiveness of missile defenses deployed in the region: Patriot, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).”
The new solid-fuel KN-23 submarine-launched ballistic missile “exemplifies the most notable advance to the North Korean inventory” of smaller weapons, with a May 2019 test of two KN-23s having revealed an “atypical flight path in which the weapon flew much closer to the ground than a traditional ballistic missile.”
“On terminal approach to its target, the KN-23 conducted a ‘pull-up’ maneuver, intended to complicate the ability of ground-based interceptors to destroy the hostile missile in flight by increasing its speed and angle of attack to the target,” the report said, adding that the weapon is capable of striking “any location on the Korean peninsula with either a conventional or nuclear payload.”