North Korea has comported itself relatively well of late. Kim Jong-Un's moves to unseat some hardliners and his talk of economic reform have been suggestive of a brighter future (and have distracted from the country's human rights crisis and verbal militaristic bluster). Unfortunately, North Korea may not remain on its best behavior for long. There are reasons to believe we may be in for an autumn surprise: from where Kim sits in Pyongyang, the time may look ripe for a third nuclear test.
Indeed, what better time than election season for North Korea to explode a nuclear device? On December 19, South Korean voters will go to the polls to elect a new president to a five-year term. Though a third candidate is running as an independent, the real contest is between Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri party and Moon Jae-in of the opposition party, Democratic United. If Kim Jong-un had a vote, he might cast it in favor of Moon, previously a chief-of-staff for the late president Roh Moo-hyun, who favored a conciliatory approach to North Korea and continued his predecessor’s “Sunshine Policy.” The political left’s return to power would likely mean more aid for North Korea, closer cross-border economic links, and a general easing of South Korean pressure on the Kim regime.
A North Korean nuclear test right before the election could strengthen the Democratic United’s narrative about the failure of the Lee government’s North Korea policy. The left could point to the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and the advancement of Pyongyang’s nuclear program to argue that Lee’s policy had only served to elevate tensions and push North Korea towards greater nuclearization. It’s not necessarily an accurate argument, but it’s one with possible domestic appeal.
The ongoing American presidential campaigns also make for good timing for a nuclear test. North Korea is unlikely to play a major role in how Americans vote, even with another test this fall. But the contest might keep the Obama administration from throwing its full weight behind efforts to censure North Korea in the event of a test or to take steps that might lead to further escalation. And with elections around the corner, Pyongyang certainly doesn’t need to worry about the United States taking more drastic steps ahead of a test, like striking a nuclear test site when the North’s preparations become apparent (not that that’s likely in any case).
Aside from elections, Kim Jong-un may believe the currently fraught international environment in East Asia is also in his favor. With growing tensions in the East and South China Seas, with the United States “rebalancing” towards the Asia-Pacific, and with persistent disagreements between Washington and Beijing over Syria and Iran, the Sino-American relationship has seen better days. Beijing would almost certainly prefer that Pyongyang avoid any provocative actions at this time. But China is unlikely to side with the United States against one of China’s few friends in the region at a time when Beijing believes itself to be the victim of an American containment strategy.
Moreover, the ongoing leadership transition in China will reinforce the tendency to stick by North Korea. Calls to support American efforts to punish Pyongyang or to downgrade relations with the Kim regime are unlikely to be political winners. Beijing is just not capable of major policy revisions at the moment. Indeed, the prevalent nationalistic environment in China today may give greater sway to those insistent on the unshakeable bond between the communist neighbors.
If China and the United States adopt significantly divergent positions following a North Korean nuclear test, that could sharpen the divide between them and serve to pull Beijing into closer alignment with Pyongyang.
Finally, this timing may prove auspicious for something Kim believes he needs to do anyway. It seems likely that the talk of economic reform (however tentative) and moves against hardliners are not sitting well with all of North Korea’s top leaders. Those in the military may be especially concerned about reform, worried that they could see their budgets slashed and their role in the economy curtailed. A nuclear test would demonstrate Kim Jong-Un’s commitment to the nuclear program and the “military first” policy, and could go far towards putting the late Kim Jong-il’s former lieutenants at ease.
For a number of reasons, then, the coming weeks are more likely to play host to a North Korean nuclear test than were the summer months. With regional tensions running as high as they already are, this would be an unwelcome surprise indeed.
Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.