Kim Is Back, but North Korea Still Isn’t Stable

There’s a lot more to worry about in Pyongyang than just its ruler’s health.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
People watch a screen showing a broadcast of the completion ceremony of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Mirae Scientists Street in Pyongyang on May 2. Kim Won Jon/AFP via Getty Images

After nearly three weeks of international speculation about his health, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un returned to public view at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new factory on May 1. Kim is apparently “alive and well.” But it would be a mistake to lose focus on North Korea, because potential instability still exists there, from domestic shocks to new military provocations. Kim’s continued power does not equate to a static situation in North Korea.

The Kim regime may focus on modernizing state institutions, or it may crack down on social trends and commerce that do not comport with the ruling party’s ideology and control of the economy. The military might make a few external provocations while quietly improving its capabilities, or it might push the envelope with further escalation. In terms of diplomacy, Pyongyang could continue to reject engagement, or it could pursue tactical cooperation for short-term gain.

North Korea’s choices will be driven primarily by domestic politics and adjusted when the regime perceives changing international threats and opportunities. But as we recommended in Foreign Policy during Kim’s absence, Washington and Seoul will be better off preparing for a coordinated response irrespective of Pyongyang’s next move.

Kim appears focused on domestic affairs in light of North Korea’s economic challenges. To address these, he could do more to evade sanctions, strengthen his country’s self-reliance, or both. The coronavirus pandemic further complicates matters because North Korea’s self-imposed national quarantine has nearly halted trade with China, upon which the country is extremely dependent. Indeed, the pandemic may be doing more than international sanctions to arrest economic activity across North Korea’s borders. Along with the regime’s persistent military ambitions, Kim’s need to show domestic strength in the face of a coronavirus outbreak may explain the series of missile tests in March and April.

Kim’s reasons for choosing the Sunchon fertilizer plant’s ribbon-cutting ceremony as his occasion to reappear are unknown. But the visit suggests the importance he places on food production, particularly while the pandemic disrupts the country’s supply chain and flow of foreign currency from China. After all, in his speech at the Workers’ Party of Korea’s plenary meeting ahead of the new year, Kim stressed that the country needs to band together in an “offensive for frontal breakthrough” to “foil the enemies’ sanctions and blockade” and “fully meet the demand needed for … economic development” and the people’s livelihood, according to a summary of his speech published in state-run media. In the current context, food production could be a more urgent priority than extracting uranium from the fertilizer’s phosphate to help make nuclear weapons, especially if North Korea’s uranium plants at Pyongsan and Pakchon and other uranium enrichment facilities are operating normally.

Kim has continuously emphasized economic development, which is a pillar of North Korea’s byungjin strategic line dating back to 1966 to achieve both military or nuclear might and economic prosperity in parallel. Kim reinvigorated byungjin in his December 2019 plenary speech while preparing his people for a long confrontation with the United States and focusing national attention on Juche, the country’s official ideology of self-reliance, across all sectors (economic, political, defense) to protect national sovereignty. While blaming the United States for North Korea’s economic woes, state propaganda promotes self-reliance to motivate hard work, fuel nationalism, and portray Kim as the national savior and defender.

Outsiders may not have been the only ones questioning the sustainability of Kim’s leadership while he was absent. The regime might look to reinforce its institutional strength by further empowering the Workers’ Party as the central authority, stabilizing relations with the military and state bureaucracy. Kim may also intensify political purges and anticorruption campaigns. The current scarcity of goods in North Korea could be an opportunity for the state to reassert control over markets and currency, redistributing benefits from the nouveau riche donju mercantile class to chosen loyalists. But it is still an open question whether the regime will double down on repression or become more open to outside assistance.

Maintaining international tensions as a means of pursuing strategic objectives remains a priority. Just one day after the world learned of Kim’s reappearance in public, tensions rose along the inter-Korean border when North Korea fired multiple shots, four of which hit a South Korean guard post in the Demilitarized Zone. The South Korean side reported no casualties but fired warning shots in response and announced it considered the incident to be an “accident.” The United Nations Command investigation could not “definitively” determine whether the North Korean gunshots were intentional, but it found that both Koreas violated the 1953 Korean War armistice.

North Korea did not cooperate with the United Nations Command investigation, but its gunfire nevertheless violated the two Koreas’ Comprehensive Military Agreement of 2018 in which they pledged to cease all hostile acts on land, air, and sea. Instead of replying to Seoul’s query for an explanation, Pyongyang condemned South Korea for conducting joint air force and navy drills in the Yellow Sea, the site of several clashes, some deadly, between the two Koreas’ militaries and fishing vessels. Blaming Seoul for violating the Comprehensive Military Agreement with the drills provides a pretext for Pyongyang to maintain or escalate tensions on the peninsula to gain leverage in future talks with Washington.

While a major diplomatic breakthrough with Washington is unlikely before the U.S. presidential election in November, North Korea will continue pursuing its strategic aim of perfecting a nuclear deterrent and gaining strategic advantage without triggering outright conflict. Its approach is conducting gray-zone provocations—just below U.S. President Donald Trump’s red line of testing intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear devices—including firing short-range ballistic missiles, waging cyberattacks, and perhaps disguising a long-range missile test as a satellite launch. Pyongyang could also follow through with Kim’s pledge to unveil a “new strategic weapon” which could be a qualitatively new missile or ballistic missile submarine. It could be rolled out in a test, display, or a purported deployment.

On May 24, state media reported that Kim laid out policies to increase the country’s “nuclear war deterrence” in a meeting of the Workers’ Party Central Military Commission but did not disclose specifics. North Korea does not necessarily need to test weapons before November to further advance its nuclear arsenal. It can expand facilities and follow Kim’s 2018 orders to “mass-produce” and deploy nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Recent satellite imagery shows the near completion of a new facility near Pyongyang International Airport that experts believe is used to support the country’s ballistic missile program. North Korea may have a freer hand in these endeavors as it faces less coordinated international pressure today than before the recent deterioration of U.S.-China relations.

Another set of potential instability factors involves inter-Korean relations. On his third anniversary in office on May 10, President Moon Jae-in again expressed South Korea’s capability and willingness to engage North Korea, beginning with public health cooperation, the reconnection of railways and roads, excavating war remains, and, eventually, sending South Korean tourists to the North. Nongovernmental organizations have also called for a joint event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the two Koreas’ first-ever summit in June 2000.

But it is unclear if and when Pyongyang will entertain Seoul’s proposals for reengagement. In the event North Korea obliges, its propaganda will likely paint the acceptance of South Korean assistance as reciprocity for Pyongyang’s “success” in anti-epidemic measures or even as a form of tribute. Pyongyang will still criticize South Korea for conducting military exercises with the United States and for failing to persuade Washington to lift sanctions. Even when the Kim regime’s calculations to cooperate are driven by urgent practical needs, it typically looks to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

Seoul and Washington should continue to probe opportunities for COVID-19 cooperation with Pyongyang for humanitarian purposes, without any expectation that it would jump-start nuclear diplomacy. Inter-Korean projects, excluding humanitarian ones, should also be pursued in exchange for some proportionate North Korean denuclearization measures. Seoul’s efforts at rail and road cooperation will require U.S. and U.N. sanctions exemptions, which in turn means reaching agreement with Washington on issues relating to the projects’ scope and pace. This approach would be politically palatable for Washington, because it would help allay concerns that North Korea will pocket benefits without taking meaningful steps toward denuclearization.

These smaller projects, however, are not especially attractive to Pyongyang because their cash revenue would not be on the scale of Chinese tours lost to the pandemic or the profits North Korea reportedly derives from cyberhacking and cryptocurrency laundering. The Moon government has expressed interest in expanding joint ventures into larger economic projects, such as the resumption of operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But these activities would also require U.S. and U.N. sanctions relief and will not be feasible without the resumption of diplomacy leading to agreement on a broader package of reciprocal denuclearization steps.

Washington and its key partners at the United Nations are likely to insist on significant and credible denuclearization measures before, or in tandem with, relaxing sanctions to allow for a reopening of Kaesong, because of concerns that the industrial park will generate funding that could be used for nuclear weapons development. Therefore, diplomacy with North Korea will be more effective if Seoul and Washington incentivize denuclearization by coordinating deterrence, sanctions enforcement, and a clear articulation of the requirements for sanctions relief.

Amid all this, the North Korean leader’s health will continue to be a wild card for the country’s future. The rumor mill of international conjecture will probably spin many times more in the next few years. The world experienced this with his grandfather and father because of the nature of the Kim regime. North Korea’s lack of transparency about succession is a matter of coup proofing, and any modification to the “Mount Paektu” Kim bloodline succession is difficult because the regime has, for decades, indoctrinated and institutionalized a leadership system and ideology akin to a state religion.

Kim’s disappearance raised global concern about how a potential leadership vacuum in a nuclear-armed state could affect regional stability. To be in a position to effectively respond to various contingencies, the U.S. and South Korea should resolve defense cost-sharing issues, maintain political cooperation, conduct regular field and tabletop exercises, and seek substantive discussions with China. The next time Kim disappears could be different, and the United States and South Korea need to be prepared.

Duyeon Kim is a senior advisor for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group. She is a columnist at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Leif-Eric Easley is an associate professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul. His research focuses on trilateral cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the United States on engaging China, Myanmar, and North Korea.