A New Administration Tradition

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.

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  • bob sykes Link

    The Kim’s have a long history of attention-getting “provocations.” Kim Jong Un actually seems mild compared to his father and grandfather. There’s no reason to get excited. They already have the nuclear warheads and ICBM’s. Trump actually had a deal with Kim that would have led to a staged reduction in his arsenal and our sanctions. In a rare display of Deep State power, Bolton and Pompeo vetoed that deal, and did so publicly.

    I believe the most important development since the formation of the EU is the signing of RCEP, the East Asian free trade union, two weeks ago. Five of our Asian allies and two of the Five Eyes are in RCEP: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea. The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and seven other countries are in it. We and India are out. India by their choice; us by Asian design.

    Any war fought in East Asian will be fought largely in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Those countries will suffer the enormous losses in lives and infrastructure that would occur. I think our allies have sent us a signal to back off. It is entirely possible they would not fight on our side and might even try to thwart our actions: denial of passage through territorial air and sea space, internship of our forces based on their territories…

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