Continuing the trendline of 2020, North Korea’s key priorities in 2021 were to tighten its belt economically and control the COVID-19 pandemic. Those two goals were related. With its healthcare system no match for such a public health crisis, the government continued its utmost effort to prevent a COVID-19 disaster through the near-complete closure of its borders, severely hampering vital trade with China. As seen in the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, however, chairman Kim Jong-un also prioritized maintaining an assertive stance toward the United States, even to the point of abjuring negotiations with Washington that might have unlocked vaccines or medical assistance. Instead, North Korea frequently criticized the US’s “hostile position” and carried out a variety of missile tests, which seemed more provocative and capable throughout the year. Pyongyang also restarted the Yongbyon nuclear facilities for producing fissile materials. This assertive and provocative behavior was emboldened by steadily closer ties with traditional allies, notably China and Russia. Meanwhile, North Korea largely showed a cold, dismissive attitude to its southern counterpart.

Throughout 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 and its subsequent nationwide spread were a critical threat to the moribund regime of North Korea. Given its outdated healthcare system and scanty medical resources, the Pyongyang regime has been pressed by two issues: how to control COVID-19 and how to reinvigorate the already dilapidated economy (Delury 2021). Therefore, the political calendar for 2021 started with a bang, as the Workers’ Party of North Korea held its eighth Party Congress in early January. Two critical points stood out. First, the regime of chairman Kim Jong-un signaled a domestic focus, especially in terms of (a) maintaining solid political and ideological control during a national health crisis, and (b) reinvigorating autarkic economic production. Second, in terms of external affairs, North Korea focused on advancing deterrence and warfighting capabilities—announcing, for example, a panoply of nuclear weapons development and production projects. Inter-Korean relations were neglected, with little mention of the possibility or desire for cooperation; engagement proposals from South Korean president Moon Jae-in were totally ignored. When South Korea was mentioned, it was primarily to accuse it of violating its commitments to inter-Korean peace and reconciliation (Cha 2021).

On the political and economic front, the 8th Party Congress underscored that party and state direction of the economy would be tightened, perhaps reflecting interest in rooting out perceived ideological deviation to sharpen party and state discipline, or perhaps only that party political leadership would need to reassert primacy over markets in a period of intensified economic turmoil. Trade and tourism were deprioritized among economic areas of interest. Industrial goods, metallurgy and chemical products, modern communications (mobiles, cable broadcasting), and even some agriculture (forestry, emphasis on state distribution) received the bulk of attention. The message was clear: continued hard times were in the offing, and harder work and internally focused self-reliance would be the marching orders.

In terms of North Korea’s view outward, the Party Congress stressed the buildup of deterrent and warfighting capabilities. Conventional armaments—short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), artillery rockets, drones—would play a role, but what got most of the attention was a list of nuclear-weapons-related technologies, platforms, and systems. The list included tactical nuclear weapons, production of thermonuclear warheads, an intermediate-range nuclear-capable cruise missile, solid-fuel submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) testing, solid-fuel ICBM development, ICBMs with multiple warheads, and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (Gallo 2021). Over the course of 2021 the first four of those seven items were either demonstrated or undergoing production. The status of the other three is unknown.

Shortly after the Party Congress, North Korea held a midnight military parade showing off a variety of presumably new and/or improved hardware, and clearly underlining the Party Congress’s focus on military strength. A new SLBM, the Pugguksong-5, was prominently displayed, as was an apparently new (or modified) road-mobile, solid-fuel SRBM mounted on a five-axle transporter-erector-launcher. This new SRBM is a larger version of the KN-24, which itself is a variant on a KN-23 Iskander clone. All in all, these incremental developments in tactical ballistic missile systems add up to a significant improvement in North Korea’s ability to field an effective warfighting missile force with a better chance of defeating US–ROK missile defenses.

The winter 2021 military focus was capped in March with an SRBM demonstration test. The road-mobile KN-23 variant was reported to be solid-fueled and capable of carrying a 2.5-ton payload. As this was the first SRBM test since March 2020, it was likely as much a political message to the newly inaugurated Biden administration as it was a test driven by technical considerations.

Indeed, Pyongyang’s unveiled military buildup has both a deterrence/warfighting dimension and a politico-diplomatic dimension, insofar as the Kim regime wants to signal to the United States that it will do everything possible to come to the negotiation table only from a position of strength and with the certainty that it can both retain its nuclear weapons program and receive sanctions relief. The ongoing efforts to suppress COVID-19 infections, and to survive the economic costs of the border closure with China, both weakened Pyongyang and turned it inward. But projecting military strength and displaying the capacity to continue its sanctioned nuclear and ballistic missile programs is an effective way to hold onto the possibility of entering any future US–North Korea diplomacy with some leverage.

For the United States, the 2021 political calendar started with a national crisis, as outgoing president Trump refused to acknowledge his defeat in the general election of November 2020, eventually provoking a riotous insurrection on January 6, 2021, that attempted to overturn the election by popular vote of president Joe Biden. The transfer-of-power crisis per se was likely of little interest to North Korea, but for two items. First, the failure of Trump’s attempts to invalidate the election meant that president Biden took office as scheduled on January 20, 2021, so the Kim regime would be dealing with a new, more traditional US president. Second, the election debacle underscored the extent of US political division, which obligated the incoming Biden administration to focus heavily on domestic issues.

Both of these points were on display in the early period of the Biden administration. To begin with, the Biden administration had clearly deprioritized North Korea during the electoral campaign, a position that seemed unchanged in much of the first half of 2021. There was, however, some inter-administration consistency despite the transition from Trump to Biden: Biden’s North Korea team remained hawkish toward Pyongyang and insistent on denuclearization as the end state for North Korea. This hard-line posture was mirrored by that of Pyongyang toward Washington. North Korea remained isolated and inwardly focused, even as it acted assertively toward the US to underline its non-negotiable claim to nuclear weapons. Neither Washington nor Pyongyang demonstrated interest in making any concessions that might coax the other side toward dialogue.

This was expected on the part of the Biden administration, of course, as it had signaled a North Korea policy review during the presidential election campaign and carried it out in the first months of the new administration. The soft rollout of the review was extremely light on detail, promising primarily that Biden’s approach to North Korea would be “practical, pragmatic, calibrated,” presumably in contradistinction to the showy, long-shot approach to a “big deal” that Trump favored. Beyond that, it tied the prospect of a Biden–Kim summit to concrete deliverables on denuclearization. Taken together, the Biden team’s policy remained hard-line and squarely within the contours of the traditional (pre-Trump) US foreign policy approach to North Korea. Most notably, the Biden administration consistently broadcast the message that it was open to dialogue with the Kim regime, but was neither rushing to negotiate nor willing to make concessionary gestures to entice the Kim regime to the negotiating table. For many observers, this resembled the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which, although principled, also was in force during a period in which North Korea made notable progress on its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

There was much speculation by experts and analysts that the Kim regime would challenge the new administration with a test of a major weapons system. But during the first seven months of 2021, Pyongyang was relatively quiet in this regard. North Korea was content with the January parade and the spring SRBM test launch. The SRBM demonstration was a modest provocation to the Biden administration, and although the parade showcased a new strategic weapon (a new variant solid-fuel SLBM), it was not an ICBM.

Despite the relative surface calm, Pyongyang has not paused its nuclear weapons program. The IAEA reported that by July 2021 at the latest North Korea had restarted the 5 MW gas-graphite reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. This reactor is primarily used to produce spent fuel rods, which can be processed to make plutonium for North Korean nuclear warheads. The reactor is currently North Korea’s only source for these fuel rods. It is also used to make tritium for boosted-fission and thermonuclear devices. Beyond its role in producing weapons to grow North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the reactivation of the Yongbyon reactor sent a message that failed diplomacy (like that in Hanoi) has a cost to the US and its international allies—and indicated that North Korea is solidifying the fait accompli that it is now a de facto nuclear state (Panda 2021).

Furthermore, North Korea does not have only one pathway (plutonium) to fissile-material production. It can also fabricate highly enriched uranium at several locations, including the Yongbyon facility. In September, satellite imagery indicated that the centrifuge hall at Yongbyon was undergoing expansion, although the exact goal is unknown. The size of the construction would allow as many as 1,000 new centrifuges (a 25% increase in enrichment capacity), if the project were dedicated to that end. There are other possible uses, however, such as building a pilot or demonstration plant for more advanced centrifuges (Heinonen 2021).

These advances in manufacturing fissile material went in parallel with Pyongyang’s augmentation of its missile program. September and October saw no less than five tests of new missile systems and platforms. In September Pyongyang unveiled and tested a new long-range cruise missile that presents a challenge for US–South Korea missile defense, and can also potentially target Japan. September also saw the launch of a rail-transported SRBM (the KN-23), which adds to North Korea’s ability to transport and to conceal its nuclear-capable missile forces. North Korea closed September 2021 with a flourish, launching a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), based on a Hwaseong-8 intermediate-range ballistic missile, and an anti-aircraft missile in the final two days of the month (Diepen 2021). The reportedly nuclear-capable HGV received particular attention, in terms of questions about its accuracy and the sophistication of its maneuverable flight characteristics, which are what make HGVs difficult for missile defenses to track and intercept. It supposedly also features “ampoulization”—that is, the liquid-fueled booster can be filled in the factory and sealed in a protective container until launch without corroding the missile components. This allows the missile to be stored in a fueled state, increasing its survivability in a potential US–South Korea preemptive strike.

Finally, in October North Korea test-fired its first SLBM since 2019. The launch reportedly took place from a Gorae-class submarine in the East Sea. The short-range, solid-fuel SLBM appeared to be a new type of missile, smaller than the more recent, larger Pukguksong series unveiled in parades in recent years. Indeed, it appeared to be the same missile (possibly based on the KN-23) on display at a North Korean weapons exposition held early in October, in which many of North Korea’s missiles (including Hwasong-series ICBMs and Pukguksong-series SLBMs) were on display. The smaller SLBM tested in October was likely chosen for the Gorae-class submarine because these have relatively small silos (in which ballistic missiles are housed and from which they are fired). This leaves the obvious open question as to whether Pyongyang has made progress on its larger Romeo-class submarines, which are supposedly being retrofitted with silos big enough for larger SLBMs. But most analysts do not believe that North Korea’s SLBMs currently represent much of a threat, as they are outmoded, conventional-powered submarines, and there is no sign of progress on a North Korean nuclear-powered submarine.

The first half of 2021 saw Pyongyang mostly in the diplomatic doldrums, for numerous reasons. Continued UN sanctions, a severe coronavirus border lockdown with China, and natural disasters combined to push the North Korean economy into a perilous state, forcing an inward focus. COVID-19 itself was a worry also, as the regime dramatically reduced travel inside and out of the country, hurting its diplomatic outlook. Over the course of the year the foreign diplomatic presence (as well as that of NGOs) in Pyongyang shrank to only a handful, as the border closure made operating normal diplomatic missions or NGO offices almost impossible. None of this was a real surprise, however, as it was a continuation of developments from 2020, and the Party Congress in January had already hinted that North Korea would be isolated and domestically focused.

The Biden administration’s North Korea policy review went largely without comment from the Kim regime, and South Korea’s frequent overtures regarding talks, humanitarian aid, and other forms of engagement fell at best on deaf ears, and often were vituperatively rejected in public statements by Kim Yo Jong (chairman Kim’s powerful sister) or senior regime officials.

Yet behind the scenes there was some interaction between Seoul and Pyongyang. In the summer it was revealed that Chairman Kim and President Moon had exchanged letters, which apparently was enough to open the door for North Korea to restart its DMZ hotline connections with South Korea. These hotlines had been moribund (on the northern side of the DMZ) since 2020. In late July and early August North Korea began to respond to hotline messages from South Korea again (King 2021).

There was some speculation that this development might be the beginning of an acceleration and deepening of North–South (and, eventually, Pyongyang–Washington) contacts, leading to more substantial talks and negotiations, and eventually to the beginning of a thawing of relations and movement toward efforts at reconciliation. Yet no sooner did Pyongyang begin to pick up the hotline phone than it shut down engagement again, complaining fervently in August about (regularly scheduled) US–South Korea combined military exercises. And this was followed by an equally sudden re-restoration of hotline communication in early October, which South Korea hailed as a step forward and possible foundation for improving relations in the lead-up to the end of the year, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, and the South Korean presidential election of March 2022. It must be noted that throughout the whipsaws in North–South relations, Pyongyang remained very closed to Washington’s invitations to come to the negotiation table, often criticizing the US for a “hostile” policy.

The overall effect of North Korea’s running hot and cold on diplomacy and engagement has been that the Kim regime was in fact quietly signaling interest in returning to engagement with Seoul and (eventually) negotiations with Washington. Yet this will happen only when it believes it has leverage—and in this regard it must be remembered that the Kim regime’s slight opening to the Moon administration was done during a period of successive missile tests. It is also likely that North Korea’s overtures to South Korea were made partly to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. The North has probably also ramped up connections with the South in order to begin to have some influence on the South Korea presidential election. As harsh as Kim is toward Moon, Kim would prefer to see a progressive inherit the Blue House in the post-Moon era, and in that respect, he may think he needs to give Moon the appearance of some progress on inter-Korean relations.

Published online: February 9, 2022

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