Those of us living in Asia awoke on November 8 to the news that former Vice President Joseph Biden, after having beaten President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, will become the 46th president of the United States after he assumes office in January 2021.
While many would congratulate Biden on his win, analysts and scholars of North Korean affairs and Northeast Asian security should brace for the possibility of instability on the Korean peninsula from provocative actions taken by the Kim regime. Biden is an unknown factor in Pyongyang’s strategic calculus. While Kim Jong Un had a working relationship with Trump, the North Korean leader cannot be sure that Biden and his advisors intimately realize the value that the Kim regime places on not being disregarded or belittled. Hence, with the upcoming leadership transition in Washington, there exists the real possibility that Kim will soon order a demonstration of resolve to prove that North Korea must be treated as an equal in any dealings with the United States.
Possible Acts of Strategic Signalling by North Korea
North Korea will be looking to signal to the new Biden administration that North Korea is not to be trifled with, that it should remain a key foreign policy focus for Washington, and that the U.S. should negotiate in good faith. There are four options for demonstrative national aggrandizement. From the least to most likely, they are: a nuclear warhead test; military provocations against South Korea; testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); and testing several short-range missiles.
While a nuclear detonation would definitely catapult North Korea to the top of the Biden administration’s list of foreign policy priorities, it also has the drawbacks of being impractical and extremely costly. To begin with, the Kim regime made a show of detonating a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. That may have been cover for reports that the site has been geologically compromised from the six underground nuclear tests conducted there from 2006 to 2017. Scientists from both South Korea and China have warned that a seventh nuclear test could cause the mountain above the site to collapse and spew radioactive fallout throughout the region – including into China, which is the North’s only ally, thereby incurring Beijing’s wrath. Based on that alone, such a test would be ill-advised.
Moreover, comprehensive and painful sanctions were already imposed from 2016-17 following the North’s previous nuclear and missile antagonism. If Kim Jong Un insists on carrying out a nuclear test, the resultant additional U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions would effectively cripple North Korea’s economy.
Turning to provocative action that is more doable and tolerable in terms of strategic costs, there is the option of small scale military action against the South Korean military. Whether this would involve firing upon South Korean outposts across the DMZ, placing landmines on the routes of ROK Army patrols, or even subjecting the South’s rural population to artillery barrages, such actions have been taken before, including in the recent past. With South Korea being a treaty ally of the United States, any cross-border military tensions would attract Washington’s attention. But since such incidents do not jeopardize critical American national interests, and do not capture U.S. public attention as no Americans are hurt or killed, such military adventurism would tend to fade as a concern of the Biden administration. However, Pyongyang’s misdeeds would trigger immediate retribution from the conventionally superior South Korean armed forces. Therefore, even if limited military action is operationally more feasible and more likely than nuclear testing, the former’s unfavorable cost-benefit ratio makes it less attractive for North Korea’s goal of refreshing President Biden’s foreign policy priorities.
Third on the list of increasingly probable crisis incidents is the “limited” test of an ICBM. In this scenario, Kim orders the launching of an ICBM on a lofted trajectory or an extremely steep angle, causing the missile to fly high up into space but limiting the range of the test to 1,000 kilometers or less. This means that the missile will not fly over Japan, thus causing less international alarm but still serving as a demonstration of North Korean technical competence. The Kim regime’s deterrence message against the new Biden administration would be obvious. The latter would be forced to elevate North Korean affairs to the top of its agenda, and the likely cost for the former – being referred to the UNSC for violating earlier resolutions banning the North Korean ballistic missile program – would be relatively bearable. The prospect of actually having to shoulder this cost might be manageable if Pyongyang appeals for Beijing’s protection as a permanent UNSC member with veto rights. China could argue that since the ICBM traveled a relatively short range, no real harm was done, and prevent stringent sanctions from being applied.
Lastly and most likely, Kim could order a series of short-range missile launches designed to show that all U.S. military facilities in South Korea are within range. This was done on several occasions from May 2019 until March 2020, and even though such actions were technically in violation of UNSC resolutions, neither China nor the U.S. had the inclination to bring North Korea to task. Hence, for the low yield benefit of reminding Biden that the Kim regime is not to be shunted to the wayside of international politics, Pyongyang pays no real strategic cost.
Forecasting the future is an imprecise art, but if Kim sees the need to show Biden why Trump took him seriously, he might choose to start on the lower rungs of the escalation ladder with short-range missiles, moving onto limited range ICBM tests if necessary. How Washington will react is anyone’s guess, but since the strategy of “strategic patience” under the Obama administration and summit diplomacy under the Trump administration have both failed to make progress on North Korean denuclearization, it is hoped that Biden will come up with a new strategy that displays greater efficacy than the efforts of his two predecessors.
Liang Tuang Nah, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Military Studies Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.