At Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Duyeon Kim reminds us of a time-honored North Korean tradition—testing the incoming U. S. administration:
North Korea has both military and geopolitical drivers to stage another provocation. The question is when and what type. Once Pyongyang realizes Biden is in fact the president-elect, there are two possible scenarios regarding timing. On the one hand, Pyongyang might cross Trump’s “red line” by testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear devices during the transition period if it feels pressed to continue refining its nuclear weapons capability and believes that Trump cannot retaliate during his remaining weeks in office. Launching an ICBM (or any class of missiles for that matter) would simultaneously achieve the geopolitical objective of gaining leverage in future negotiations and testing an incoming Biden administration.
On the other hand, North Korea is heavily consumed with a fierce “80-day battle”—a national productivity campaign that began in October during which North Koreans are required to work extra hours to achieve national and economic goals before a rare Workers’ Party congress set for next January. These “battles” are also meant to firmly consolidate domestic unity around the Kim dynasty. State media say their priority this time is typhoon recovery, anti-coronavirus campaigns, farming, coal mining, and scientific research without outside help over fears of viral infections. This means that Pyongyang may wait until after the regime cements next year’s goals during its January party congress. If so, the window for a provocation would be between January and March, when President Biden’s team is not yet complete after inauguration and before the US and South Korea hold their annual spring military drills.
That is the same period during which Pyongyang has tested missiles or nuclear devices in the past after a change in American administrations. The possibility cannot be ruled out that the regime may even wait until it assesses an incoming Biden administration’s attitude toward it. But Pyongyang may not wait—candidate Biden personally called Kim a “thug” (although Pyongyang previously called Biden a “rabid dog” and “fool of low IQ”), which could be enough justification to provoke Washington, especially when Kim’s sister in July expanded the scope of “US hostile policy” to include rhetoric (insults) and human rights criticisms.
It could also provide the incoming Biden Administration with an opportunity, for example to show how tough they are or how effective they are at rebuilding alliances and just how effective those alliances can be. Or it could ignore “provocations” while trying to get itself organized and deal with an ongoing pandemic.