Specific predictions of North Korea’s actions in the coming months, such as the timing of a potential Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch, are unwise. Though North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is neither irrational or uniquely unpredictable, complex variables are likely to influence his decision-making—including signals and actions from a still-transitioning U.S. presidential administration. Therefore, it is far more useful to forecast the motivations behind Kim’s likely approach toward the United States than it is to attempt predictions.
That said, there is no shortage of opinions about what approach to expect from Pyongyang in the months ahead.
A range of commentators contend that Kim will soon conduct a strategic weapons test to get the Biden Administration’s “attention.” Like editorial cartoons that depict a baby Kim “rattling” a missile, the idea of Kim craving US attention is both pervasive and intuitive. Unfortunately, this line of thinking can reduce Kim to a caricature “problem child” throwing a tantrum and “acting out,” rather than providing any useful insights on Kim’s strategic decision-making calculus.
Meanwhile, a body of analysis suggests a North Korean “provocation” is likely to come soon, given historical patterns around U.S. presidential transitions. Unfortunately, the causality behind this pattern is unclear, and even the term “provocation” itself is problematic. Besides encompassing widely varying actions, the term implies intent to “provoke” a reaction. Recent “provocations” like ballistic missile launches in 2019 and 2020 garnered little international reaction even as they advanced North Korea’s solid-propellant missile program. The profile of these launches and accompanying messaging suggest they were orchestrated to limit, rather than incite, US reactions.
Other commentators—particularly some aligned with South Korea’s Moon Administration—optimistically anticipate a quiet cry for help from Pyongyang rather than an angry cry for attention. They point to recent signs of restraint on Pyongyang’s part, and to domestic difficulties exacerbated by North Korea’s COVID lockdown and UN sanctions, to argue that Kim is likely to seek negotiations for relief and therefore reluctant to risk a confrontation.