In one of North Korea’s biggest propaganda spectacles, thousands of delegates from the ruling Workers Party met for an eight-day Congress in Pyongyang that concluded this week.
At the cavernous April 25 House of Culture, they alternated between cheering wildly and scribbling furiously on their notepads as leader Kim Jong Un declared the United States to be his country’s “principal enemy” and pledged to expand a nuclear and missiles programme that has advanced at breakneck speed – despite international sanctions – during his nine-year rule.
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The weapons in development, Kim said, included a “multi-warhead rocket”, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), “supersonic gliding flight warheads” and even a nuclear-powered submarine.
The goal, according to the North Korean leader, was to attain the capability “for making a preemptive and retaliatory nuclear strike” that can “annihilate” any targets within 15,000 kilometres (9,320 miles) – a range that puts the US itself well within reach.
“Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the US, our principal enemy and main obstacle to our innovated development,” Kim told the Congress. While he did not rule out diplomacy, “the reality is that we can achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula when we constantly build up our national defence and suppress US military threats,” he said.
Kim’s weapons pledge, described by Lee Sung-yoon, professor of Korean Studies at the US-based Tufts University, as his “most detailed and provocative statement” on nuclear policy, comes just months after the North Korean military showed off a new weapon – an ICBM that can be transported by road and that analysts say could be one of the world’s largest if it becomes operational.
Lee said Kim’s threat indicated a “high possibility” that Kim may turn to “missile and nuclear provocations” soon after US President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20, breaking a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing that the North Korean leader had announced in 2018 amid negotiations with the outgoing president, Donald Trump.
Those talks have since stalled following disagreements on disarmament steps and North Korea’s demand for the removal of punishing sanctions.
“The timing calls for making a statement to the incoming Biden administration,” said Lee, noting that North Korea has a long history of “taking advantage of the political vacuum early in the new US administration and resorting to provocations”. Soon after former President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Pyongyang carried out its second underground nuclear test and in the first year of Trump’s presidency, it tested an ICBM for the first time as well as what it called a hydrogen bomb.
“The ongoing political turmoil in the United States – with the insurrection in the nation’s capital – Kim has all the more incentive to raise the temperature, resort to a provocation and exercise his own brand of maximum pressure on a distracted Biden administration,” Lee said.
‘Dire’ economic situation
Other analysts, however, say the domestic situation in North Korea remains too “precarious” for Kim to resume high-profile weapons tests.
The country is facing its most severe challenges since a famine in the 1990s killed some three million people or 10 percent of the country’s population.
A United Nations expert in June last year expressed alarm at what he called “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” in North Korea, amid punishing international sanctions as well as Pyongyang’s decision to close its borders with its main trading partner China to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“An increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and some are starving,” Tomas Ojea Quintana said in a statement.
Economists say the North Korean economy may have contracted between 8.5 and 10 percent last year as a result of the sanctions and border closures – the sharpest decline in more than 30 years.
Adding to the suffering, tens of thousands of homes and vast swathes of farmland were damaged during floods last summer.
Opening the Congress last week, the first since 2016, Kim described the last five years as being the “worst of the worst” for North Korea, saying economic development plans had fallen “tremendously short of goals on every sector”. In a public speech last October, he also shed tears as he thanked his people for enduring the “huge challenges and difficulties”.
“North Korea has a track record of testing the nerves of the incoming American president, but this time, I think they will exercise caution and exercise restraint because of the dire domestic economic situation,” said Jaechun Kim, a professor of international relations at the Sogang University in South Korea. “That’s because the US is very likely to respond to any provocations with escalated sanctions, which North Korea cannot withstand given the precarious situation at home.”
Pyongyang’s powerful neighbours, China and Russia, “will find it difficult to side with the North if they do major testing,” Kim said, adding: “China doesn’t want unnecessary conflicts on the Korean Peninsula that can provide rationales for the US to deploy American strategic military assets near the Korean Peninsula. This is even more so given the intensified nature of the US-China rivalry in recent years.”
Biden’s North Korea policy
Much also depends on the Biden administration’s policy on North Korea.
The president-elect, who has called Kim a “thug”, is expected to maintain the US’s tough sanctions policy on Pyongyang. But he is set to begin his presidency with his hands full, with a surging COVID-19 outbreak and the fallout from Trump’s incitement of his supporters to storm the US Capitol as part of a bid to overturn the November 3 election results.
However, if a distracted Biden administration “does not prioritise North Korea, we will continue to see it making tremendous advancements on their nuclear and missiles programmes,” said Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow for Korea at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“For North Korea to refrain from provocations, the Biden administration has to consider North Korea as a top priority, conduct a policy review immediately, and then come to a decision – whether that is applying full-on pressure or pursuing an interim deal that does not lead to denuclearisation, but at least cap the North’s nuclear programme,” she said.
And time is of the essence, experts said, as any further advancement on North Korea’s nuclear missiles programme would only improve Pyongyang’s leverage, allowing it to demand relief from sanctions just for reducing tensions rather than making any actual progress on denuclearisation.
“It’s been a very, very successful business model over the past three decades – going back to negotiations, causing trouble, provocation and then return to negotiation and reaping concessions,” said Tufts’ Lee. “It’s netted North Korea, conservatively, $20bn worth of material and monetary aid, cash and lots of food fuel and other blandishments.”
To break the cycle, he says Biden must keep up the financial pressure on North Korea for at least five years and enforce sanctions on the businesses, namely the big Chinese banks that trade with Pyongyang.
So far, Washington’s enforcement of sanctions has been relatively weak against North Korea, in comparison with countries such as Iran and Russia, while the summitry between Trump and Kim has reduced China’s compliance with the punishing measures.
“This pattern of North Korean provocation and then offer to return to negotiations will happen again,” Lee said. “And when Kim Jong Un says: ‘Hey, let’s meet’, or, ‘Hey, let me send my sister to the White House, to work things out a little bit before we meet’, will Biden be able to resist the temptation to de-escalate? And say: ‘No, we’re going to keep enforcing sanctions against you?’”