In one of North Korea’s biggest propaganda shows, thousands of delegates from the ruling Workers’ Party gathered for an eight-day convention in Pyongyang that ended this week.
At the cavernous Maison de la Culture on April 25, they alternated between crazy cheers and furious doodles on their notepads as chef Kim Jong Un declared the United States as his country’s “main enemy” and pledged to develop a nuclear and missile program that has progressed at breakneck speed – despite international sanctions – since taking power after the his father died a little over nine years ago.
Weapons in development, Kim said, included a “multi-warhead rocket,” solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), “supersonic hover warheads” and even a nuclear-powered submarine.
The goal, according to the North Korean leader, was to achieve the capability “to carry out a preemptive and retaliatory nuclear strike” that could “annihilate” any target within 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) – a reach that puts the United States itself at your fingertips. .
“Our foreign political activities must be focused and reoriented on the submission of the United States, our main enemy and the main obstacle to our innovative development,” Kim told Congress. While he did not rule out diplomacy, “the reality is that we can achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula by constantly strengthening our national defense and removing US military threats,” he said. declared.
Kim’s pledge of arms, described by Lee Sung-yoon, professor of Korean studies at US Tufts University, as his “most detailed and provocative statement” on North Korean nuclear policy, comes months only after the North Korean army exhibited a new weapon – an ICBM that can be transported by road and which analysts say could be one of the largest in the world if it becomes operational.
Lee said Kim’s threat indicated a “strong possibility” that Kim could turn to “missile and nuclear provocations” soon after US President-elect Joe Biden was sworn in on January 20, breaking a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing and ICBM that the North Korean leader had announced in 2018 in negotiations with outgoing President Donald Trump.
Those talks have since stalled following disagreements over disarmament measures and North Korea’s request to remove punitive sanctions.
“The timing calls for making a statement to the new Biden administration,” Lee said, noting that North Korea has a long history of “taking advantage of the political vacuum at the start of the new US administration and resorting to provocations.” Shortly after former President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Pyongyang carried out its second underground nuclear test and during Trump’s first year of presidency, it tested an ICBM for the first time as well. than what he called a hydrogen bomb.
Lee said that “the ongoing political turmoil in the United States – with the insurgency in the nation’s capital – is all the more prompted for Kim to turn up the heat, resort to provocation and exert her own maximum pressure on a distracted Biden administration ”.
‘Dire’ economic situation
Other analysts, however, believe the domestic situation in North Korea remains too “precarious” for Kim to resume high-profile weapon tests.
The country faces its most serious challenges since a famine in the 1990s killed some three million people, or 10 percent of the country’s population. Opening Congress last week, the first since 2016, Kim described the past five years as “the worst of the worstFor North Korea, claiming that economic development plans had failed in “almost all areas.”
In June last year, a United Nations expert expressed concern over what he called “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” in North Korea, as international sanctions punished as well as the decision to Pyongyang to close its borders with its main trading partner, China, to prevent the spread of COVID -19.
“A growing number of families eat only twice a day, or only eat corn, and some are starving,” Tomas Ojea Quintana said in a statement.
Economists say the North Korean economy may have contracted between 8.5% and 10% last year due to sanctions and border closures – the biggest drop in over 30 years.
In addition to the suffering, tens of thousands of homes and large tracts of farmland were damaged in the floods last summer.
Kim admitted Tuesday that his first five-year plan had fallen “terribly short of targets in all sectors”, while in a public speech last October, he shed tears thanking his people for having endured the triple blows.
“North Korea has already tested the nerves of the new US president, but this time I believe they will exercise caution and restraint due to the dire domestic economic situation,” said Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations. at Sogang University in South Korea. “This is because the United States is very likely to respond to any provocation with escalating tensions, which North Korea cannot resist given the precarious situation in its country.”
Pyongyang’s powerful neighbors, China and Russia, “will find it difficult to side with the North if they carry out major tests,” Kim said, adding, “China does not want unnecessary conflicts on the peninsula. Korean who can provide justification to the United States. deploy US strategic military assets near the Korean Peninsula. This is all the more true given the intensified nature of the US-China rivalry in recent years.
Biden’s North Korean policy
Much also depends on the policy of the Biden administration towards North Korea.
The president-elect, who called Kim a “thug,” is expected to maintain the United States’ tough sanctions policy against Pyongyang. But he is about to begin his presidency with his hands full, with an outbreak of COVID-19 and the fallout from Trump’s incitement to his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol as part of an attempt to ‘annul the results of the November 3 elections.
However, if a distracted Biden administration “does not prioritize North Korea, we will continue to see it making huge strides in its nuclear and missile programs,” said Sue Mi Terry, senior researcher for Korea. at the US-based Center for Strategic and International. Studies.
“For North Korea to refrain from provocation, the Biden administration must see North Korea as a top priority, immediately conduct a policy review, and then make a decision – whether by applying pressure total or by pursuing an interim agreement that does so. not to lead to denuclearization, but at least to cap the nuclear program in the North, ”she declared.
And time is running out, experts said, as any further advancement in North Korea’s nuclear missile program would only enhance Pyongyang’s influence, allowing it to demand sanctions relief only to reduce tensions instead. than to make real progress in denuclearization.
“It’s a very, very successful business model over the last three decades – going back to negotiations, causing trouble, provoking provocations, then going back to negotiations and reaping concessions,” said Lee Tufts. “He prudently brought North Korea $ 20 billion in material and monetary aid, money and a lot of food fuel and other flattery.”
To break the cycle, he says Biden must maintain financial pressure on North Korea for at least five years and impose sanctions on companies, namely the major Chinese banks that do business with Pyongyang.
So far, Washington’s enforcement of sanctions has been relatively weak against North Korea, compared to countries such as Iran and Russia, while the summit between Trump and Kim reduced China’s compliance with punitive measures.
“This model of North Korean provocation and proposing to return to negotiations will happen again,” Lee said. “And when Kim Jong Un says, ‘Hey, let’s meet’ or ‘Hey, let me send my sister to the White House, to sort things out before we meet,’ will Biden be able to? to resist temptation? to defuse it and say, “No, are we going to continue to apply sanctions against you?” “