North Korea recently convened the Eighth Congress of its ruling Workers Party. These are, of course, highly scripted affairs, but for outsiders, they offer one of the few windows into North Korean policy-making which we have. The speeches and reports released provide at least a general sense of where the North Korean elite sees the country’s economic development and foreign relations especially.
Much of this year’s focus on has been the proposed major expansion of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Updates and improvements include longer-range missiles, hypersonic missiles, and smaller, tactical nuclear warheads to supplement the larger weapons which provide the bulk on North Korean deterrence against the United States and other foreign opponents. (For fuller technical details on the modernization, look here.) The political backdrop of justification is America’s unchanging ‘hostile policy.’
Politically, this is not very surprising in its broad strokes. Relations between the United States and North Korea have been very poor for a long time, of course. North Korea explicitly sought nuclear weapons to deter the United States from attacking it. Pyongyang’s nuclear negotiators routinely invoked the fate of Saddam Hussein of Iraq or Moammar Gaddafi of Libya as justification: had those leaders possessed nuclear weapons, the United States would not have attacked them. This logic is almost certainly correct.
The timing at the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s term is also likely not a coincidence. North Korea achieved the ability to strike the United States with a large nuclear weapon in late 2017. It then paused the development and elaboration of its nuclear and missile programs, likely to see what might come of Trump’s effort to engage North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un in negotiation.
This pause was strategically wise. North Korea did not give up anything. No nuclear weapons or missiles were surrendered, but it did give Trump the illusion of progress and some breathing space to make a serious offer to the North.