North Korean Missile Test Looming?

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.