According to a recent video footage beamed out of the country by its state broadcaster, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has achieved what many thought impossible: losing weight during the middle of a pandemic. Images of the slimline dictator have sparked renewed speculation about Kim’s health, both domestically and abroad. While one Pyongyang resident has claimed, somewhat hyperbolically, that Kim’s “emaciated” figure “breaks our people’s heart”, external observers are more divided over the extent to which this mild weight loss is an indicator of improving or declining health. To this international audience, ongoing concerns over Kim’s wellbeing stem from the fact that he has not yet publicly appointed a successor, and his children are likely too young to inherit the family’s throne. An incapacitated Kim Jong Un could, therefore, risk precipitating an unprecedented crisis in North Korean governance, and consequently pose a major threat to stability in the region.
For the moment, however, Kim Jong Un’s stature and authority appear relatively undiminished. Believed to be around 37 years old, Kim has been in power for nearly a decade, and all signals suggest that, like his father and grandfather before him, he intends to maintain his position for the remainder of his life. Focused on this overriding aim, Kim spent much of his early tenure eliminating domestic rivals – including his own uncle – before turning outwards to ramp up the North’s ambitious missile and nuclear weapon programs. The resultant 2017 peninsula security crisis was followed by a short-lived phase of détente and regional leadership summits. This more optimistic period unceremoniously ended in February 2019, when a Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi was abandoned without a deal – leaving in place international sanctions and pressure that weakens the North’s potential for economic growth and international legitimacy.
The gradual worsening of relations between North Korea and its adversaries throughout the remainder of 2019 and early 2020 was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has posed a substantial risk to the North’s anaemic healthcare infrastructure. Forced to turn inwards to avert a major national health crisis, North Korea’s leadership maintained its denials that the country had witnessed any positive cases of the virus, while implementing major new regulations along its borders that continue to severely restrict external trade and travel. Simultaneously, the country’s agricultural output was heavily impacted by natural disasters, including typhoons and flooding – renewing fears over the country’s dwindling food supply. Strikingly, Kim Jong Un has recently conceded publicly that “the people’s food situation is now getting tense”, and has also hinted that a “grave incident” related to COVID-19 has occurred.
It is far more likely that Pyongyang will seek aid from China, Russia and the broader international community, allowing itself the space to maintain a hard-line stance against its traditional adversaries in the US, South Korea and Japan.
At the same time as Kim faces these domestic crises, he must decide how to recalibrate his own foreign policy in light of changes in the US’ approach to peninsula security under President Biden. Following a lengthy policy review, the Biden administration has been relatively clear about how it intends to differentiate itself from previous US administrations on the North Korea issue. Gone are the Trump-era leadership summits, love letters, and talk of grand bargains, and in its place is an emphasis on more limited and practical diplomacy, as well as strengthening Washington’s relationships with its regional alliance partners in Tokyo and Seoul.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes that a new period of détente can be initiated by offering the North help acquiring COVID-19 vaccines, but Kim Jong Un has shown little interest in talks with his counterpart in Seoul on the issue. So far, the North has also rejected the Biden administration’s calls for dialogue, with foreign minister Ri Son Gwon publicly stating that such talks would ‘get us nowhere’. It is far more likely that Pyongyang will seek aid from China, Russia and the broader international community, allowing itself the space to maintain a hard-line stance against its traditional adversaries in the US, South Korea and Japan. While many observers expected a return to significant tensions in 2021, Pyongyang has so far refrained from any major escalation, instead test-firing only its less provocative short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that have largely been tolerated by regional actors. However, with so few other tools at its disposal to signal its displeasure with international sanctions and pressure, it is probably only a matter of time before North Korea begins ramping up the scale and size of its missile tests. But what might the North test, if it does choose to shift to a more confrontational path once again? Recent military pageantry in the North offers some clues as to the menu of potential future actions.
As the centrepiece of a major military parade in October 2020, North Korea unveiled a new, significantly larger intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), dubbed the “Hwasong-16”. For Kim Jong Un, the strategic value of this new ICBM lies in its capacity to deliver a payload around two or three times larger than that of its predecessor, the Hwasong-15, and its increased potential to overwhelm the US’ missile defence system. This was followed by a further parade, in January 2021, featuring a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), described by North Korean state media as ‘the world’s most powerful weapon’. The Pukguksong-5 is the latest in a series of SLBM designs that indicate an ongoing desire by the North to develop a second-strike capacity, delivering nuclear payloads from within the maritime theatre. A successful test-launch of either the Hwasong-16 ICBM or the Pukguksong-5 SLBM could therefore potentially demonstrate major new strategic advances in Kim Jong Un’s capabilities. The US and other international observers would likely view the test-firing of either of these two missiles as a major provocation, that could risk returning the peninsula to tensions not seen since 2017.
If the Biden administration and its allies in Seoul are unable to persuade North Korea to return to talks soon, then the most likely medium-term outcome is a further period of testing and threats. An instructive quote attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov advises aspiring writers that ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.’ Similarly, when seeking to anticipate the possible future direction of North Korea’s missile test programs, one obvious place for observers to begin is by locating and examining hardware already displayed via the North’s periodic military parades. If Kim Jong Un is indeed in relatively good health then, short of war or regime collapse, the North Korea drama is set to be a very lengthy one. In essence, Kim Jong Un has already set the stage for future confrontation – with a degree of foreshadowing worthy of Chekhov’s gun itself.