Why 2020 Could Be a Year of Increasing Tension on the Korean Peninsula

In 2020, for the first time since he took office, Kim Jong-un did not make the New Year’s speech, an event which foreign analysts have come to regard as the key event where the DPRK’s supreme leader sums up the results of the past year and plans for the future. These statements have always been distinguished by a certain sincerity in the sense that they were not declarative in nature. His failure to provide this annual message was due to the fact that its place was taken by the final theses of the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which was held from 28 to 31 December 2019 (Juche 108) at the headquarters of the party’s Central Committee.

This was the second plenum to take place in 2019. The first was held in April, and is remembered both for its demand that the nation concentrate all its forces on economic development, and for the statement that North Korea will continue to pursue its former course of detente until the end of the year, but only if the United States does not change its approach; in this case, the strategy would be altered.

The DPRK continued to restate these terms of engagement throughout the fall of 2019. However, the United States did not take significant steps to improve relations with Pyongyang. This was connected both with the instability of Trump’s position, which against the background of the domestic political situation in America could not afford “unacceptable concessions to the tyrant,” as Trump’s enemies called the North Korean leader, and due to Washington’s general unpreparedness for a real response.

Although the DPRK announced that Trump himself would choose his Christmas present and until the end of 2019 everyone was waiting for missile launches, this did not happen. However, a study of the currently available results of the WPK plenum suggests that North Korea is slightly altering course.

The following points attracted the most attention of the author.

First, an emphasis remains on growing the economy, and a return to the term “Byungjin”(Parallel Development) did not take place. “Two years of peaceful respite” was used to prepare the country's economy for a new round of economic sanctions, which have come to resemble a blockade more and more. Let’s recall that, according to current sanctions, it is forbidden to export such basic items as needles, knives, forks, bicycles or boilers to North Korea.

Amid such conditions, Kim needs to minimise the nation’s dependence on exports and to establish certain conditions, so that the decline in the quality of life will not be felt for at least another year or two.

Second, one can see the country tightening the screws with respect to ideology. The theme of the fight against non-socialist culture can be understood in different ways, and anti-Pyongyang experts even suggest that we can talk about curtailing market processes. The author believes that it is most likely a matter of enhancing the secrecy of the regime and punishing those who spread foreign culture. Some steps in this direction have already been taken. Thus, according to Andrei Lankov, taking pictures in the country has become more complicated; in particular, unverified tourists cannot take panorama photos of Pyongyang from the viewing deck at the Tower of the Juche Idea.

It’s true that one must understand that in a pre-war environment, such limitations are understandable: since the Second World War, the collection and processing of publicly available civilian photographs has provided the military with great support in the planning of operations.

Third, although there was no radical change in DPRK strategy, all preparations for this were completed. At the same time, Kim left himself room for manoeuvre. On the one hand, he promised the world a “new strategic weapon”, on the other hand, it happened more than once that a similar term was understood not as military-technical innovation, but the indestructible love of the people for its leader.

The same can be said about the lifting of the tests and moratorium on launches. In the form it took, it was an act of goodwill by Kim Jong-un. Although at the Hanoi summit the North Koreans proposed turning it into a legally binding document, the negotiations then broke down, and there was nothing to blame Kim for. In addition, the lifting of the moratorium does not mean that nuclear tests and launches of ICBMs will begin immediately.

This is especially important due to the fact that there were no abusive statements against Trump or Moon, and according to the final documents of the plenary session we cannot say that the dialogue with the United States is completely broken. Yes, the Northerners take a more offensive position and raise the bar for requirements; yes, they are openly preparing for the worst case, but at the same time they remain open to really breakthrough proposals from the American side.

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What awaits us next? In the author’s opinion, a lot will depend on how the domestic political situation in America develops and how the North Korean America-watchers can draw the right conclusions from this.

It seems that Pyongyang understands that any successor to Trump is unlikely to be pragmatic enough to continue his course. And if Trump does not win the 2020 elections or is impeached earlier (which is unlikely, but possible), then there is no point in signing an agreement that could be disavowed or revised in the near future.

The second factor that may have an impact on the situation is the relationship between the United States and China. They continue to worsen, and this allows Kim to count on two points. The first is Chinese support, which we observed most recently in the form of a joint proposal by Moscow and Beijing to ease the sanctions against Pyongyang. This may mean that even in the face of increased pressure, China may look the other way for loopholes in laws. The second point is the chance that against the backdrop of a tougher confrontation between Beijing and Washington, Pyongyang will “sit on the fence” and everyone will temporarily forget about it.

The DPRK authorities are closely observing the situation in the Middle East. On the one hand, from the point of view of a cold-blooded strategist, Iran is a more convenient target for “demonstrative whipping.” On the other hand, Iran and the DPRK often exchange military technology, and an attack on the American bases with precision weapons may be the result of this military cooperation. In the event of a serious clash between the US and Iran, the Korean question may be kept on standby. And in any case, the presence of nuclear weapons shows that some political moves regarding the DPRK are no longer valid.

Of course, it’s a shame that the two-year period of relative detente is coming to an end. The reason for this, according to the author, is that at some stage, two pragmatists came to the conclusion that since the problem cannot be solved, they can pretend that a solution is on the track, and the problem is paused. However, even imitating the search for a way out requires some steps from both sides. But America is apparently not ready for this.

The most important demand made by the DPRK was that it ease sanctions, but the problem is that the United States perceives sanctions as the only effective lever of coercion, denying Kim the right to good will. As a result, judging by the final documents of the plenum, Pyongyang has decided that amid the current situation, there is no sense in hoping for the lifting of sanctions, and it is necessary to build a policy based on a worst-case scenario.

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