North Korea is expected to apply heavy pressure on the Biden administration in the first few months of the Joe Biden presidency. The first indications of this have already started appearing. The possibility of Kim Jong Un welcoming Joe Biden to the White House with a defiant gesture is growing. North Korea appears to be taking steps towards an operational test of a new submarine-launched missile type. At a military parade in Pyongyang over the weekend a model of the missile was on display with North Korean media enthusiastically touting the power of the new weapon. The public revealing of the sub-launched missile follows two weeks of work underway at the North Korean naval base at Nampo. Preparations on a submersible barge of the type used in the past for tests of submarine-launched missiles were completed at some point between 31 December and last week.
If a North Korean missile test comes about in the near-future it will be the first real foreign policy test for the new Biden administration. Even though a test of this new missile will not violate North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on inter-continental ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests, it will pressure Biden’s foreign policy team to hasten development of the new administration’s North Korea policy. It appears likely that the initial plan was to take a page from the Obama administration’s playbook and adopt a policy of strategic patience. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, seems prepared to make it clear that policy will be a non-starter. North Korea is facing significant troubles at present: Crippling US sanctions, COVID-19 and an economy edging closer to collapse.
To use history as a guide, four years ago North Korea and Kim posed an early test for the Trump administration. Political positions aside, the way Trump navigated the North Korea minefield in those early days set the tone for US-North Korean relations over the next four years. Biden could find himself in a similar position very soon.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to do something neither of his predecessors before him ever had to consider: Be straight with the North Korean people. As difficult as it is to believe, Kim did exactly that. In the opening speech for the first ruling party congress to be held in five years, North Korea’s leader admitted that the five year economic development plan put in place at the 2016 congress has failed completely. “We should further promote and expand the victories and successes we have gained at the cost of sweat and blood, and prevent the painful lessons from being repeated,” Kim was quoted as saying.
Ostensibly, the reason for the congress being held this year is to develop new solutions to the problems facing the nation at present. 2020 has been year of multiple crises for North Korea. COVID-19, and related economic issues are now presenting Kim with the greatest challenge of his tenure. COVID-19 related border closings with China have severely curtailed the North’s economic mainline, continuing US sanctions, and the after-effects from a series of typhoons and severe flooding last summer have combined to form a perfect storm, so to speak. Kim Jong Un’s rule remains uncontested, yet given the present problems facing the North, he needs to show the people that he is a caring leader. His speech was intended to project that image and was fairly successful in that regard. The speech also serves to warn the North Korean populace of tough times ahead and assure them that their leaders are working to lighten the impact of these problems on the national economy, and the people.
Speculation on the wellbeing of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un resurfaced over the weekend, prompting a renewed death watch on Kim, and concerns that a power transition could be in the works. It began with reports from South Korean intelligence last week that Kim Jong Un had delegated some power and authority to his sister Kim Yo Jong. The reports strengthened the notion that Un’s sister is being groomed to succeed him at some point by the end of the year. Then over the weekend Chang Song-min, a former aide to South Korea’s late president Kim Dae-jung made the bold allegation that Kim is in a coma and his sister is in fact preparing to take full control of the government. Chang claims that a full succession of power has not yet been completed and Kim Yo Jong is being positioned to prevent a vacuum from forming when Kim Jong Un finally expires.
Back in April Kim’s health condition was in question following an extended period of him not being seen in public. In the absence of hard information speculation soared. Rumors of Kim having suffered a heart attack, stroke, or even COVID popped up daily from many ‘reliable sources.’ There was even concern he had died, leaving North Korea rudderless. Finally, Kim was seen in public, speculation disappeared, and the world moved on.
A few months later and here we are again. On the verge of another episode of North Korean Soap Opera.
To be fair, there is something going on in the North. The problem is that when it comes to North Korea’s internal politics there are very few analysts, and experts able to accurately read the tea leaves.
North Korea has announced the appearance of the first ‘suspected’ case of COVID-19 in the country. Following a meeting with the politburo North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a ‘maximum emergency’ and locked down the city of Kaesong which is located in close proximity to the DMZ. According to the official government version of events, released through the KCNA news agency: “An emergency event happened in Kaesong city where a runaway who went to the south three years ago – a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus – returned on 19 July after illegally crossing the demarcation line.” In addition, the government has also launched an investigation to determine how a man managed to cross the heavily fortified DMZ.
Initially, North Korea was swift in reacting to COVID-19. In the earliest days of the pandemic Kim Jong Un ordered his nation’s borders closed, and thousands of people were placed in isolation. For months North Korea has boasted of complete success in dealing with the virus. Because the nation-state is extremely isolated, it has become impossible to confirm or dispute the reports coming out of the North concerning its fight against COVID. For months, however, medical professionals have doubted the claim that there were no active COVID cases in North Korea.
Now, all of the sudden a case has materialized from suspicious circumstances. According to the government’s story the virus has been brought into the country from the outside by a former defector. That detail seems to suggest that North Korea is preparing to lay blame for the virus coming into the country on a foreign power, most likely South Korea or the United States. Even though its unclear just what the situation is in the North, judging from the limited amount of information available, its likely that the government’s efforts to contain COVID-19 are failing. In the coming days and weeks a large portion of the population could develop the virus, pushing North Korea’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse. There is no conceivable way for the North Korean government to hide a large-scale disaster like this from the world. Therefore, Pyongyang needs a scapegoat to lay blame upon when the time comes.
This has been a busy weekend on the Korean Peninsula. On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in nearly a month, ending rumors and wide speculation that suggested the Supreme Leader had died as the result of a cardiovascular procedure early in April. Kim’s appearance at the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory north of Pyongyang has answered many questions, however, it is bound to create a new wave of them as well. Most of these will be about whether or not Kim recently had surgery, and what his present health condition is. The truth of the matter is that very few facts have escaped from North Korea aside from Kim being alive. On the subject of health, how North Korea is holding up in the midst of a global pandemic is unknown. Although the images, and video released on Friday show a relatively normal scene at Sunchon, there is growing concern that North Korea could very well be dealing with thousands of COVID-19 cases behind the propaganda wall put up by state media.
As if these issues weren’t enough to deal with, on Sunday North and South Korean troops exchanged small arms fire along the DMZ. There were no casualties or damage reported on either side. This was the first incident where the two sides exchanged fire since 2017. At the moment Sunday’s brief exchange appears to have been the result of an accident. Its timing though, provides plenty of food for the imagination. Some observers have openly wondered if there is indeed a tie-in between the shooting on the DMZ, and Kim Jong Un resurfacing.
Probably not. Kim Jong Un would probably prefer a more spectacular act of symbolism to show the world he remains in control of North Korea’s military. A ballistic missile test, or barrage of short-range rockets being fired into the waters off of the coast would fit the bill. If either one of those take place in the coming week, it will most likely be a direct message from Kim showing he has retained the control and loyalty of his armed forces.