What does North Korea’s decision to stage a nuclear test and the launch of a space launch vehicle (SLV) a month apart in early 2016 tell us about where things stand domestically inside the country? To be sure, both events are intended to test technologies the regime attaches great importance to, but, in North Korea, nothing of this sort is scheduled without consideration of the broader political effects. “Politics” in the North Korean context, of course, means something very specific: it refers primarily to Kim Jong-un’s agenda of still-ongoing power consolidation and implementation of the byungjin policy of simultaneously pursuing economic development and a nuclear deterrent.
It’s notable that in this year’s New Year’s address, Kim placed a special emphasis on improving the economic lot of ordinary North Koreans. In fact, he managed to explicitly avoid any direct reference to the country’s nuclear program. I found that surprising at the time, given suggestions in 2015 that the United States and China had come to some sort of understanding on North Korea’s byungjin stance—surely Kim couldn’t have missed an opportunity to underline his signature policy on the occasion of the new year? It was, after all, his response to his father’s songun, or military-first, policy that caused untold economic damage to the country, persisting to this day.
Of course, not a week passed before Pyongyang claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb, emphasizing that rhetoric aside, North Korea remained committed to its nuclear program. The SLV launch this past weekend underlined continued progress on long-range rockets. Both actions elicited strong calls from the United States, South Korea, and Japan for additional sanctions—a result that should have been entirely unsurprising for the North Korean government. How then do these events in early 2016 dovetail with Kim’s broader byungjin approach?
Answering this question necessitates an attempt at guesswork (as is often the case in analyzing North Korean behavior). I’m tempted to see the decision to begin the year with these grand shows of still-progressing military force as the first act in what will likely be an important year for the byungjin idea in North Korea. In May, in a rare event, the Korean Workers’ Party will hold its first top-level party congress in 35 years. Party congresses are a regular occurrence in other states carrying the banner of Marxist-Leninism (or some variation thereof), but not in North Korea.
Informed speculation on the purpose of the party congress suggests that this could be the moment for Kim to unveil specifics about how he plans to deliver on his economic promises. Kim didn’t exactly highlight how his vision for creating a “turnaround in economic development” would work during his new year’s address. The party congress may present the right opportunity. North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and fourth satellite launch (and, indeed, even last year’s submarine-launched ballistic missile tests) give Kim opportunities to point at areas where the right hand of byungjin—military strength—is at work. The left hand—economic development—hasn’t quite taken off, but this could be in the offing at the party congress itself.
With suggestions that we may see a fifth nuclear test sometime soon, Kim might be attempting to seal-in the case that North Korea’s military progress is suitably advanced to turn to the side of the byungjin policy that hasn’t received much attention. Of course, there are strong counter-arguments to this suggestion: nothing in Kim’s behavior since he took over has suggested that he’s looking to enter the history books as North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping, and, indeed, with the international community paralyzed in its inability to respond in a coordinated matter, perhaps the incentives don’t exist just yet for the country to alter course.
We won’t know for sure until May, but if byungjin is really what Kim Jong-un is about, there’s a good chance that the recent spate of provocations will be followed by heretofore unseen economic reform.