North Korea, like all of northeast Asia, is occupied with containing the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. In the meantime, despite ending 2019 with an ominous tone concerning its weapons development programs, Pyongyang’s military activities have been modest.
For instance, despite appearances in mid-January that parade preparation was underway at a well-known site near Pyongyang, no parade took place on February 8 (the Korean People’s Army’s founding day). Since two unspecified engine tests at the liquid propellant engine test stand in December, North Korea has not carried out any major demonstrations.
But even with coronavirus taking up much of the North Korean leadership’s attention lately, efforts are no doubt underway to develop new systems. Kim Jong Un, after all, promised that the world would soon see a “new strategic weapon” during his address to the Fifth Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in the final days of 2019.
A recent editorial in the Workers’ Party’s newspaper Rodong Sinmun hints at what may be a new deadline directive from Kim Jong Un this year. According to a summary published in the Korean Central News Agency, a Rodong Sinmun editorial called on the country’s scientists to focus on “the offensive for making a breakthrough head-on and victory achieved on all fronts of the socialist construction.”
“All the scientists and technicians should take active part in the death-defying sci-tech campaign to win victory on all fronts of socialist construction like those in the field of national defence who have brilliantly materialized the Party’s grand strategic plan by making world-startling successes always together with the answer of loyalty ‘Yes,’” the summary noted.
Most notably, the editorial called on the “scientists and technicians to glorify the great October festival with victory in the front of science under the guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.”
The October festival referenced is the October 10 holiday for the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which will mark its 75th anniversary this year. Provided the coronavirus epidemic is under control by then, North Korea may stage a major military parade or other demonstration, such as a satellite launch, to mark the occasion.
For now, enough has been left unsaid that it’s not precisely clear what exactly the October deadline will entail. For instance, if the United States and South Korea hold major military exercises in the spring or summer, as they have in past years, North Korea may feel compelled to respond—perhaps accelerating plans for the unveiling of what surprise or surprises await.
But October will present an important moment with the U.S. electoral calendar too. Kim Jong Un may see the weeks and days before the U.S. election as an opportune moment to insert himself onto the U.S. political agenda. In 2016, for instance, Kim oversaw the failed launch of a Musudan ballistic missile just hours before the third general election debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump.
The prospects of an “October surprise” from North Korea appear decent. What exactly Kim Jong Un has in store remains to be seen.