During the summer and autumn 2020, the author has, on more than one occasion, come across reports by analysts or statements by politicians about the possibility that North Korea could conduct a nuclear weapons test or at least, fire a submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in the run-up to the presidential election in the United States.
According to Yonhap News Agency, on June 2, retired General Walter Sharp, the former Commander of US Forces Korea (USFK), expressed worry that the DPRK would “soon launch a new ballistic missile submarine”. He said that in his opinion, North Korea continued “to develop its short- and medium-range ballistic missile capability despite refraining from long-range missile tests since 2017”.
On July 8, the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (a think tank) reported that with an SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) launch, “Pyongyang could deliver strongest shockwaves” to the international community, “while shunning the risk of being seen as defying the UN Security Council resolutions” (since they do not specifically touch on SLBMs).
In addition, Yonhap News Agency wrote that North Korea had “fired an anti-ship cruise missile” as part of its regular summertime exercise on July 6, 2020. According to the article, “the test was belatedly known to the media, as neither the South Korean military authorities nor North Korean media outlets announced the launch”.
In August, citing South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, The Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korea appeared “to have completed a new” 3000-ton submarine, capable of carrying 3 or 4 ballistic missiles (for instance, the Pukguksong-3 weapons).
On August 25, ROK Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said that North Korea was “continuing to develop an SLBM off its eastern coast”.
Satellite images of the Mirim Parade Training Ground (located at the Pyongyang East Airfield), captured on August 31, revealed that preparations for a military parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10 were underway. According to 38 North, a US-based website devoted to analysis about the DPRK, the imagery showed a “probable missile-related vehicle” at the facility.
On September 2, 2020, The National Interest, a US international affairs magazine, reported that “North Korea could possibly unveil a more reliable type of ICBM” during the military parade. The article stated that “the long-range ballistic missile could be solid-fueled, which would signal a ‘generational shift’ in North Korea’s missile technology”. It also said that liquid fuel required longer preparation times as the weapons could not “normally be left in a fueled state, due to the corrosive and highly combustible nature of the chemicals used”.
On September 6, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing a September 4 report on the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Beyond Parallel website, that satellite imagery had shown activity at North Korea’s Sinpo shipyard “in a possible sign” the DPRK “could be preparing to test-fire” an SLBM.
According to an article published by Yonhap News Agency on September 9, Markus Garlauskas, “a former intelligence officer for North Korea at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence”, said that North Korea appeared “to be ready to resume its nuclear and weapons testing in the near future” during a virtual United States Institute of Peace seminar entitled “A New Direction for US Policy on North Korea”. According to Markus Garlauskas, the DPRK leader has personally stated that the North was “no longer bound by its earlier pledges not to test nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles”. He also stated that additional weapons testing was “probably just a matter of time”. On September 9, the Beyond Parallel website once again reported that a satellite image of the Sinpo South Shipyard captured activity which remained “suggestive, but not conclusive, of preparations for an upcoming” SLBM test. According to the article, the presence of a vessel typically “used to tow submersible test stand barges out to sea for test launches” supported the aforementioned hypothesis.
However, on September 10, Yonhap News Agency wrote that, during a webinar hosted by the CSIS, USFK Commander General Robert Abrams said North Korea was “not showing any signs of provocation”. In his opinion, “the impoverished North” could “be too caught up in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and the amplified effects of sanctions”. According to the general, “things were pretty calm and steady along the inter-Korean border”. “There have been some bumps and bruises along the way, but in general I would say North Korea is abiding by the comprehensive military agreement from September 2018,” he added.
38 North (housed at a US-based think tank) published its analysis of the satellite images showing recent preparations at the Parade Training Grounds and indicating that work to upgrade a bridge in Pyongyang was complete. According to the website, the imagery also captured garages at a “vehicle storage complex large enough to house long-range missile transporter-erector-launchers (TELs)”. On September 14, Yonhap News Agency reported that Defense Minister nominee General Suh Wook stated the DPRK had not shown “signs of preparations to fire” an SLBM anytime soon and “chances of an SLBM launch on the occasion of October’s founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party” appeared low. Still, he also noted that Pyongyang continued “to push for beefing up capabilities of its submarines capable of carrying SLBMs”.
According to an article published by Yonhap News Agency on September 16, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman nominee Won In-choul stated that “recovery work from damage by recent typhoons” was under way at the Sinpo shipyard. He added that “once completed, North Korea could launch an SLBM by using catapulting devices following preparations for a short period of time”.
On September 16, 38 North reported that “satellite imagery of North Korea’s Sinpo South Shipyard” indicated heavy activity had taken place there. The images also showed either the repositioning or departure of the submersible test barge used for test launches. The article concluded that the barge’s whereabouts could “signal an impending SLBM test, although conducting such a launch on the heels of a destructive typhoon” seemed unlikely.
On September 17, the Daily NK, a well-known online newspaper, reported that “a single unnamed source near the shipyard” said the site was “bustling with activity to prepare for a ballistic missile launch, with officials and researchers arriving since late August”.
In a RIA Novosti interview, published on September 19, Pyotr Ilyichev, the head of the Department of International Organizations of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said that the Russian Federation had no information about any preparations by the DPRK for an SLBM test launch.
In the author’s opinion, there is a domestic rather than a foreign policy component to the agenda behind such reports, originating first and foremost in the United States.
One of the main criticisms directed at Donald Trump by the Democrats is that the President is not well-versed in foreign policy, which is why the US standing on the world stage has greatly diminished. The relationship between the United States and the DPRK is often cited as an example of his incompetence. During Donald Trump’s term, high tensions, which plagued these relations at the end of 2017, have eased. Or more accurately, the talks between North Korea and the United States are on pause, and whatever Pyongyang’s interpretation of this situation may be, it has abided by the self-declared moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
It is understandable why members of the US political establishment who wish to see Kim Jong-un’s head on a spike have referred to the negotiations with the ruthless dictator as an exercise in futility. Still, in order for these accusations to stick, the status quo has to fall apart at the hands of the DPRK during Donald Trump’s term and not in response to a new policy course adopted by the new administration. And if this disaster has not struck as yet, it is possible to reiterate instead that it could occur any minute now.
A biased person could easily find a justification for such a move by the DPRK. After all, North Korea is on the verge of starvation and a social upheaval because of the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters. Hence, in order to distract the populace from all these domestic woes, Kim Jong-un could choose to worsen the situation in order to either then blame the United States for the rise in tensions or to show strength. And since October 10 is the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ideological regime could easily decide to stage a “fireworks display”.
In reality, based on previously organized events in the DPRK in 2020, ensuring measures to curb the spread of the novel Coronavirus remain in place is more of a priority for the regime in comparison to hosting large-scale celebrations. In addition, a lot of effort and many resources are currently focused on mitigating the consequences of the recent floods. A welcome gift for North Koreans ahead of the anniversary would, in fact, be a faster recovery from all he damage caused in areas where people have lost their homes.
In such a context, the satellite imagery could be interpreted in a different manner. According to Dave Schmerler, a Senior Researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “although the activity” at the shipyard does suggest some kind of work was “being done on the missile barge, it would also be consistent with basic repair work after the storm”.
Undoubtedly, the DPRK continues to expand its arsenal and sooner or later, it will test fire its SLBM. Still, it is also important to remember how frequently reports about its imminent launch have been published and continue to be published. Hence, the author thinks that, barring any drastic changes, North Korea will not take any actions before the presidential election scheduled for November 3. Hong Min, the Director of the North Korean Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told The Korea Times that the DPRK would “withhold the negotiations until” after the election. “If Trump’s chances of reelection become slim in the coming weeks, North Korea could decide to make some kind of a gesture,” he added. In addition, Park Won-gon, a Professor of International Politics at Handong Global University, has said “an SLBM is an optimized weapon that does not cross US President Donald Trump’s ‘red line’, or nuclear and ICBM tests that can pose a threat to the US mainland”.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.