The New South Korean Missile Guidelines and Future Prospects for Regional Stability
The New South Korean Missile Guidelines and Future Prospects for Regional Stability
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
Commentary / Asia

The New South Korean Missile Guidelines and Future Prospects for Regional Stability

On 7 October (Seoul time), in the middle of a long U.S. holiday weekend and when most American attention was turned to the November elections, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) announced new missile guidelines (NMG) that extend the range of ballistic missiles to 800km with a 500kg payload.  The NMG also increase the payload of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from 500kg to 2,500kg.[fn]ROK Ministry of National Defense, “미사일지침(NMG) 개정,” News Release, 7 October 2012. Song Sang-ho, “Seoul to get more powerful, longer-range ballistic missiles,” The Korea Herald, 7 October 2012.Hide Footnote The South Korean government says it will be able to deploy ballistic missiles with the extended range within five years.[fn]Song Sang-ho, “Seoul to deploy longer-range missiles in 5 years,” The Korea Herald, 8 October 2012.Hide Footnote The increased UAV payload will give the ROK an opportunity to develop a high-altitude UAV with enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity to support its expanding capability to strike deep into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea).

Nonproliferation advocates are alarmed that the NMG will increase instability and fuel regional arms race dynamics. On the other hand, many South Koreans remain dissatisfied because they feel Seoul should have no limits on ballistic missile ranges or payloads at all. Many nationalistic Koreans equate missile restraint with a loss of national sovereignty, so the revised guidelines have broad public support; all three major presidential candidates immediately endorsed them. When the revised guidelines were announced, ROK National Security Adviser Chun Yung-woo (Ch’ŏn Yŏng-u) said they were needed to “deter North Korean military provocations.”[fn]Choe Sang-hun, “U.S. Agrees to Let South Korea Extend Range of Ballistic Missiles,” The New York Times, 7 October 2012.Hide Footnote

Chun’s assertion is not credible in an absolute sense, but ballistic missiles under the new guidelines will give the ROK another tool for managing the growing and unconstrained North Korean nuclear and missile threats. But the new guidelines could come with costs and unintended consequences. In a worst case scenario the ROK deployment of such systems could lead to instability—particularly during crises—and undermine the already weak missile nonproliferation regime. In any case, the NMG announcement seems untimely when Northeast Asia is experiencing a surge in extreme nationalism in the shadow of intractable territorial and maritime disputes.

As expected, the DPRK government denounced the NMG as part of a “U.S. plan to launch a war against the DPRK,” and “another manifestation of the U.S.  hostile policy to strangle the DPRK and use the Korean peninsula as a springboard into Asia and world domination.” A DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that the DPRK has the ability to strike “U.S. military bases in South Korea and its vicinity, and also the U.S. mainland.”[fn]“DPRK FM Spokesman Denounces U.S. for Sparking New Missile Arms Race in Northeast Asia,” Korean Central News Agency, 10 October 2012.Hide Footnote The Chinese and Japanese reactions have been more muted, although Beijing announced that the development could damage nonproliferation efforts and destabilize the Korean peninsula.

Background: How did we get here?

The NMG is a revision of the ROK’s voluntary restraint in accordance with range and payload guidelines under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and a bilateral agreement with the United States. Since joining the MTCR in March 2001, ROK ballistic missiles have been limited to a range of 300km with a 500kg payload. But prior to joining the MTCR, South Korean missile ranges had been limited to 180km (with a 500kg payload) under a 1979 U.S.-ROK military agreement. The 1979 memorandum of understanding (MOU) allowed the ROK to procure U.S. materials, components and technology as long as Seoul did not violate the limits that had been set in accordance with U.S. proliferation concerns. A range of 180km gave the ROK the capability to strike Pyongyang, which is about 150km from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), but not targets in the northern part of the DPRK where numerous military facilities, including missile bases and weapons factories, are located.

The 1979 MOU was a result of South Korea’s Paekkom (white bear or polar bear) ballistic missile program. Fearing abandonment by the U.S., President Park Chung-hee initiated a ballistic missile development program in December 1971, and he wanted a 200km-range missile by 1975. The unrealistic timeline led the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) to select the Nike-Hercules for reverse engineering in 1974.[fn]구상회, “한국 미사일 개발의 산 증인 구상회 박사 회고(1),” Shindonga, February 1999.Hide Footnote The Nike-Hercules was a two-stage missile with a primary mission of air-defense and a secondary mission of surface-to-surface nuclear strikes; therefore, it was a very poor choice for a ballistic missile since the second stage had fins for maneuverability in its air-intercept role.

In 1986, South Korea began mass production of the Hyŏnmu-1, an upgraded version of the Paekkom, and deployed the new systems the following year.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote However, by the early 1990s, North Korea’s development and testing of the 1,000km-range Nodong pressured South Korea to respond with its own extended-range missiles. The ROK approached the U.S. and asked for a revision of the 1979 MOU; bilateral talks began in 1995 and 20 rounds were held before the agreement was revised in 2001 upon South Korea’s joining the MTCR. Throughout the talks, the U.S. adhered to strict nonproliferation principles in the fear that South Korean missile development could undercut separate U.S.-DPRK missile talks and the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework aimed at denuclearizing North Korea

Since Washington maintained missile export controls in accordance with the 1979 MOU, Seoul began to explore the possibility of acquiring missile technology elsewhere. South Korea’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union, which was a product of former President Roh Tae-woo’s “nordpolitik” or northern policy, provided such an opportunity.  Roh’s initiative led to a short June 1991 meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in a San Francisco hotel room that was set up after a January 1991 deal whereby Seoul provided Moscow with $3 billion in loans and trade credits.[fn] “Seoul’s Trade with Soviets,” The New York Times, 1 May 1991.Hide Footnote At the time, no one would have surmised that this agreement would affect the outcome of U.S.-ROK bilateral missile negotiations and the ROK’s new missile guidelines announced on 7 October 2012.

South Korea’s Russian Missile Connection

In the 1980s, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev began looking to East Asia for trade and investment in an effort to improve the Soviet economy. The outreach to South Korea was part of Moscow’s economic policy, but it included geo-political and strategic dimensions as well. In April 1991, only two months before the Gorbachev-Roh summit, the USSR offered to sell MiG-29 and MiG-31 fighter aircraft to South Korea. In August 1992, Seoul informed Moscow that it would like to become a supplier to the Russian military, and it might want to buy Russian defense firms and operate them as joint ventures.[fn]Alexander A. Sergounin and Sergey V. Subbotin, “Russian Arms Transfers to East Asia in the 1990s,” SIPRI Research Report No. 15, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 111.Hide Footnote Shortly thereafter, the South sent officials to secret defense plants and expressed an interest in acquiring aerospace technology. The two sides then signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement in November 1992.[fn]Ibid., p. 112.Hide Footnote

In 1994, South Korea began “Operation Siberian Brown Bear” (불곰사업) to acquire advanced military technologies from Russia. An official from South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said they were able to acquire technologies that would take 10-15 years to development and that France and the U.S. would not sell them.[fn]“푸틴 등장으로 다시 주목받는 한·러 무기거래 ‘불곰사업’,”주간조선, 2198호, 19 March 2012.Hide Footnote The operation was a result of Russian financial constraints and the need to service the South Korean loans. The first repayments were due in 1993 and Russia offered weapons instead of cash. In April 1995, Moscow and Seoul agreed to a barter deal whereby Russia would provide $208.8 million worth of military hardware and training for South Koreans. Russia also began to send Russians to South Korea to provide technical assistance.[fn]Alexander A. Sergounin and Sergey V. Subbotin, “Russian Arms Transfers to East Asia in the 1990s,” SIPRI Research Report No. 15, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 112-113.Hide Footnote

Prior to Operation Siberian Brown Bear, the Korea Aerospace Institute (KARI) began developing sounding rockets in 1990 in accordance with the Ministry of Science and Technology’s 10-year space development plan that was released in 1985.[fn]Daniel A. Pinkston, “North and South Korean Space Development,” Astropolitics, Vol. 4, No. 2, summer 2006.Hide Footnote KARI launched the KSR-1 in June and September 1993, and the KSR-II in July 1997 and June 1998.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote South Korean officials and KARI engineers were denied rocket technology from the U.S. because of the 1979 bilateral missile MOU, which South Koreans resented because they felt it was impeding their development of space launch vehicles (SLVs).

In this context, U.S.-ROK missile negotiations began in November 1995, and two years later the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) released its “Medium- and Long-Term National Space Development Plan” in November 1997. During the bilateral negotiations, the U.S. insisted on four conditions for an extension of ROK ballistic missiles ranges to 300km: 1) the U.S. would have the right to inspect missile production facilities; 2) the ROK would have to provide information at each step prior to research, development, production, and deployment; 3) the ROK could not conduct research on missile systems with a range greater than 300km; and 4) the ROK would have to disclose information on civilian rocket research.[fn]김영번 및 공영운, “한국 ‘미사일射거리 300Km’ 확대 美 전격수용,” 문화일보, 21 April 1999.Hide Footnote

South Korea did not expect the negotiations to be so contentious and to last so long. KARI had expected easy and swift access to SLV technologies from the United States, but the American policy was neither to support nor obstruct ROK space development. Nevertheless, the U.S. Commerce Department continued to deny SLV-related exports to the ROK even after Seoul had joined the MTCR in 2001.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

But considering Washington’s proliferation concerns, U.S. denials might not have been imposed without reason. In the late 1990s, the U.S. had discovered ROK activities that appeared to be outside the guidelines of the 1979 MOU, and South Korea was less than transparent. For example, in April 1999, South Korea flight-tested a missile that American analysts believed had a range far beyond the 180km limit.[fn]The missile reportedly reached an altitude of 35km before splashing down 40km from the launch site. 김도형, “한-미 미사일시험 논란,” 한겨레, 20 April 1999.Hide Footnote The test occurred just over seven months after North Korea flight-tested its Paektusan-1 (Taepodong-1) SLV in a failed satellite launch attempt. While much has been written about the 31 August 1998 Paektusan-1 launch, the details of the mysterious South Korean flight test have never been disclosed to the public.

The desire to extend ballistic missile ranges is not only a priority for the Lee Myung-bak government; in fact, senior ROK officials have considered it in their national interest for several years. For example, during a July 1999 summit, President Kim Dae-jung asked President Bill Clinton to agree to a 500km-range ballistic missile range extension. However, Clinton and the U.S. government denied the request out of proliferation concerns. The U.S. held firm on the 300km range, which was necessary for MTCR membership and access to SLV technology as Seoul continued to move forward with its space program. After joining the MTCR in March 2001, KARI launched its KSR-III sounding rocket in November the following year. Although the ROK had joined the MTCR, it did not affect the ability to acquire SLV technology prior to the successful launch of the KSR-III—the last sounding rocket test before an attempt to place a satellite into orbit.

The ROK acquired advanced technologies through Operation Russian Brown Bear in the 1990s, but South Korea also was able to acquire long-range missile technology from Russia through clandestine means. In 1996, a South Korean man moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka peninsula, and he established a hotel, and a real estate and tourism business.[fn]Interview, Seoul, July 2011; 강훈, “[Why] 어느 사업가의 고백 ‘내가 ICBM (대륙간 탄도미사일)한국에 들여왔다,” The Chosun Ilbo,  25 June 2011.Hide Footnote While he was in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia was decommissioning ICBMs in the area in accordance with the START I Treaty. The missiles were cut into pieces so that they could not be reassembled and launched. Nevertheless, the parts and complements could be valuable to ROK missile designers.

The South Korean businessman was able to win the contract for chopping up the ICBMs and use them for scrap metal.[fn]The businessman disclosed his story after Russia learned of the operation and later denied him reentry into the country. He wanted the ROK government to intervene on his behalf and request that Moscow grant him an issue visa, but the ROK government refused. His dissatisfaction with the ROK government’s inaction led him to divulge the operation.Hide Footnote He claims to have seen the missiles at the decommissioning site for the first time in 1997 and that afterwards he informed the ROK government. By June 1998, he was able to acquire enough missile parts for one ICBM, including two complete engines. The first shipment of parts arrived at a Dongkuk Steel Mill Company pier in Inch’ŏn on 30 November 1998, and on 2 December they were trucked to a National Intelligence Service (NIS) warehouse in Taejŏn, which is the home of KARI, ADD and the Taedŏk Science Town. The operation succeeded in bringing two more shipments including components for joining missile stages in December 2000, and three engines and components for connecting engines and nozzles in November 2001.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

As South Korea’s NIS was able to acquire ICBM components by exploiting the lax security around missile decommissioning sites in Kamchatka, Russia was developing new ICBMs and short-range missiles, including export versions that would be within the MTCR prescribed guidelines of a 300km range and 500kg payload. In the 1970s, the USSR was looking to develop a replacement for its short-range Scud (R-17) missiles, but serious research and development did not start on this missile, the Iskander (SS-26), until the 1990s. The first flight-test was not until October 1996. Moscow aimed to start production of the Iskander around 1998~1999, but the target date was delayed for lack of funding. Although production had not begun, an export version was displayed for the first time in 1999, even before final flight tests were completed in August 2004.[fn]“Missiles of the World: SS-26,” Footnote The Iskander finally became operational in Russia in 2007, shortly after the ROK established its Guided Missile Command (유도탄사령부) in September 2006 with a Hyŏnmu ballistic missile battalion and an ATACMS battalion.

Now fast forward to 2010. Inter-Korean relations had deteriorated to their lowest depths in decades following the sinking of the ROK navy patrol ship Ch’ŏnan and the artillery attack against Yŏnp’yŏng Island. Seoul took a number of counter-measures against Pyongyang, and the Lee Myung-bak government began to push hard for a revision of the U.S.-ROK bilateral missile agreement. Pressure increased in the lead up to the DPRK’s attempted satellite launch on 13 April 2012. President Lee raised the issue directly with President Obama when he visited Seoul for the Nuclear Security Summit in late March 2012. Obama was not swayed by Lee’s request, and he insisted that details remain delegated to the working level.[fn]“Remarks by President Obama and President Lee Myung-bak in Joint Press Conference,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 25 March 2012.Hide Footnote However, Lee was persistent and adamant about a range of 800km. Once the ROK president had insisted upon 800km and signaled it was a very high priority in Seoul’s national security policy, it became very difficult, if not impossible, for U.S. negotiators to roll that number back.[fn]Interview, Seoul, October 2012.Hide Footnote

Since Seoul’s patience with the North had run out, the Lee government wanted to send a strong signal to Pyongyang.  On 1 April, only 12 days before the DPRK’s Ŭnha-3 SLV launch, an “unnamed  senior ROK military official” disclosed the existence of a “corresponding target strike plan (相應標的 打擊 計劃)” that was “confirmed” the following day.[fn]윤희훈, “軍, ‘北 서울 타격시 평양 보복 타격’,” Asia Today, 2 April 2012.Hide Footnote According to the leaked parts of this plan, in the case of a DPRK military provocation, the ROK would initiate counter-strikes against the source of the attack, support facilities in the area of the attacker and/or supporting units, and an equivalent counter-value target. For example, an artillery attack against Yŏnpy’ŏng Island would bring a ROK strike against a DPRK island; an attack against Seoul would bring a counter-attack against Pyongyang.

Six days after North Korea’s 13 April failed satellite launch attempt, President Lee visited the ADD, and the Ministry of National Defense (MND) released video footage of the Hyŏnmu-2 ballistic missile and the Hyŏnmu-3 cruise missile.[fn]Lee Soon-hyuk, “Defense ministry shows off powerful new missiles,” The Hankyoreh, 20 April 2012.Hide Footnote In appearance at least, the missiles look like clones of the Russian Iskander (SS-26) and the Iskander-K cruise missile. There is no conclusive proof that they are, but it would explain a lot about the ROK ballistic and cruise missile programs, which made rapid progress—including mass production and deployments with so few flight tests.[fn]In October 2006, ADD conducted a successful test of the 1,000km-range Hyŏnmu-3B land attack cruise missile. Defense contractor LIG Nex1 began mass production of the Hyŏnmu-3B in 2008, and they reportedly were deployed in 2009. Development of the 1,500km-range Hyŏn-mu-3C cruise missile began in 2007.Hide Footnote

Paradoxically, U.S. success in restraining ROK missile development for almost four decades eventually led South Korea to seek and acquire missile technology from elsewhere, particularly from Russia. Over the last couple of years, U.S. negotiators maintained their strict nonproliferation position in their bilateral missile talks, but repeating the same tough message of “unacceptability” along with the U.S. effort to stall and delay a revision of the NMG were no longer credible. South Korea was prepared to abandon all restrictions and Washington could not stop Seoul from doing so.

What are the future implications of the NMG?

ROK military officials were quick to emphasize that based on a trade-off, the NMG also gives Seoul the right to develop ballistic missiles with a range of 550km and a 1,000kg payload. That range enables the ROK to strike all of DPRK territory, and with a large enough payload for a nuclear warhead. There are no signs Seoul wishes to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and acquire nuclear weapons; however, public opinion polls consistently show that about two-thirds of South Koreans support the ROK acquiring its own nuclear deterrent. Furthermore, some prominent ROK lawmakers have called for the re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. In sum, the 550km and 1,000kg numbers will be heard loud and clear in Pyongyang.

Ballistic missiles are attractive to ROK defense planners because it is virtually impossible for the DPRK to intercept them. Geography has determined that once launched from ROK territory, they would strike targets in the DPRK within 3-5 minutes. Since they would be launched from mobile launchers at remote locations, there would be no warning. Some strategists believe this capability gives Seoul the option of making limited precision strikes in remote rear areas of the DPRK before Pyongyang could react, which is probably true. This type of operation is very different than air strikes that can take several hours or days to prepare. ROK air power is superior to that of the DPRK, especially when U.S. Air Force assets on the peninsula and in the theater are considered. DPRK military planners know this, so ROK and U.S. officials worry about a DPRK preemptive strike during the preparation of a “corresponding target strike operation” in the wake of a small-scale DPRK military provocation. But some analysts argue that the window of opportunity for DPRK preemption would not exist with a ballistic missile option.

South Korea’s Hyŏnmu-3B cruise missile with a range of 1,000km should be more than efficient to deter North Korea, especially if they are deployed in sufficient numbers and if the ROK completes its development plan to deploy them on ships and submarines. The Hyŏnmu-3 is very accurate with a circular error probable (CEP) of about three meters, so it can strike military facilities including command and control centers with precision. Seoul’s message in April 2012 was that its cruise missile targeting could include the locations of the senior DPRK leadership. However, some ROK analysts and policymakers argue that the DPRK’s extensive air defense system would make ROK cruise missiles vulnerable to interception. Furthermore, North Korea’s mountainous terrain complicates flight to targets and ROK cruise missiles partially rely upon GPS navigation, which is susceptible to DPRK jamming.[fn]“‘North Korea jamming’ hits South Korea flights,” BBC News, 2 May 2012.Hide Footnote

The South Korean government also wants ballistic missiles with the new extended ranges because the U.S. is scheduled to transfer operational control (OPCON) of the ROK military in 2015. Under the current arrangement, if the Korean War Armistice were to collapse and the war were to resume, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) would stand up and almost all ROK military forces would be placed under command of the CFC. The CFC commander is an American four-star general and his deputy is a ROK four-star general. The 28,500 American military personnel on the peninsula, as well as about 600,000 ROK military personnel and other Americans deployed to the conflict, would be integrated into the CFC to maintain a unity of command in combined military operations.[fn]The CFC also would include up to 3.5 million ROK reservists called to active duty. United States Forces Korea, “Mission of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command”.Hide Footnote

Some South Koreans view the dismantlement of the CFC as a welcome symbol of ROK national sovereignty and a natural progression given the country’s successful development and increasingly impressive military capabilities. However, others view it as an erosion of U.S. alliance credibility in the shadow of a nuclear-armed DPRK and rising China. The U.S.-ROK alliance and U.S. military deployments on the peninsula will continue under a new arrangement. The CFC will be replaced by a U.S. Korea Command, but some of the details on the new structure and how it would conduct wartime military operations remain to be worked out.

The U.S.-ROK alliance is strong, and the two sides will implement the necessary details for a successful OPCON transfer. Some argue the 2015 transfer date might be postponed or cancelled, but so much preparation and work have already been completed that it would be costly to reverse. OPCON transfer comes just as the U.S. is “rebalancing” to East Asia. Formerly known as “the pivot,” or what the Chinese call “the U.S. return to Asia,” Washington’s plan it to redeploy forces to the Asia-Pacific region as the wars draw down in the Middle East. Presently, the U.S. plan is more words than action, and the force levels inevitably will be affected by government budget constraints. Despite Washington’s rhetoric, the U.S. appears to be maintaining its position rather than building up its forces in East Asia. In sum, the U.S. probably will maintain its current force levels and alliance commitments in the region as it asks the ROK to play a greater role in its national defense after OPCON transfer.  Part of that role will include the enhanced ballistic missile capabilities under the NMG.

DPRK military strategists know that a robust ROK mobile ballistic missile system deployed under the NMG will give the [North] Korean People’s Army (KPA) little if any reaction time. The logic of sŏn’gun (先軍) or “military first,” means North Korea will have to respond in kind. Pyongyang’s rhetoric after the NMG announcement likely will be followed by a demonstration of DPRK missile capabilities. It also increases the likelihood of another North Korean nuclear test. Furthermore, it means that if the ROK develops and deploys new ballistic missiles with extended ranges under the NMG, the KPA Strategic Rocket Forces will spend increasing amounts of their time on alert so they can be ready to respond to a ROK ballistic missile strike. The possibility of misperception, miscalculation, and catastrophic escalation will rise.

The good news is that there is still time, and although I am very doubtful, the NMG could be used as an incentive to get Pyongyang back to the bargaining table and take arms control seriously. The paradox is that arms control and restraint violates every principle of sŏn’gun, which is regarded as a fundamental tenet of the Kim family dynasty, but the DPRK is in the weakest position to run an arms race in Northeast Asia. If anyone should embrace arms control, restraint and collective security in Northeast Asia, it’s the DPRK! However, this will be impossible unless the DPRK abandons its “hostile sŏn’gun ideology” that views the balance of power as the only pathway to national—and regime—security.

Countries in the region are in the process of leadership changes, and no real diplomacy is expected to take place until next year. But when it does, maybe an offer of ROK restraint and a promise to forgo the development of extended range missiles could get the attention of the leadership in Pyongyang. The DPRK’s four satellite launches have failed—and at a tremendous financial cost. The North Korean leadership is not known for having a clear grasp of “opportunity cost” but they certainly have learned that long-range missile development is very difficult and very costly. When the new leadership seems to be focusing on the need to improve the North Korean economy, maybe they will realize the economic—and security—benefits of mutual restraint. I very much doubt it, but at least there will be time to try. If we fail, the regional arms race will continue unabated and the Korean peninsula will face an increasing threat of instability and war.

Workers plant rice at the Chongsan Cooperative Farm in the Kangso district of Nampho City on 12 May 2020. KIM Won Jin / AFP
Q&A / Asia

North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022

The latest five-day plenum of North Korea’s ruling party focused on food insecurity, chief among the nation’s challenges. With the pandemic not yet tamed and other uncertainty on the international scene, Pyongyang may continue refraining from major provocations into 2022, but for how long is unclear.

North Korea has just completed its annual review of its own performance at the fourth plenum of the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party, held from 27-31 December 2021. What can we learn from this exercise about the state of the country?

Under Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang politics tick along on a system of five-year “congresses”, the most recent of which was held in January 2021 (and should run to 2026). These five-year cycles are then punctuated by fairly regular plenums, including the one that ended on 31 December. What we got in a lengthy article on 1 January was a report on that plenum, which amounts to a kind of annual review of the party’s performance, and an indicator of the challenges it has identified for the year ahead.

What happened this time is a little different from the usual modus operandi. Under previous chiefs and in Kim Jong-un’s pre-pandemic era, the North Korean leader would deliver a new year’s address either on television or via an editorial in state-run newspapers, and these would mark a waypoint in the country’s politics. In 2022, all we got was a report on Kim Jong-un’s contribution to the plenum; it was a comma compared to the full stops of years past.

The report gave little hope for immediate improvement ... as Kim [Jong-un] mentioned a ‘heavy yet responsible agony’ for the period to come.

It’s difficult to interpret exactly what this means and what new, if anything, has been decided by the five-day plenum. For one thing, the full text of Kim’s speech was not published, and for another, the signals it gave were rather mixed. There was abundant rhetoric about successes and breakthroughs as usual, but all suffused with a sense of insufficiency. Of one thing we can be relatively certain: 2021 was another tough year, in particular due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Perhaps not quite as tough as 2020, when the coronavirus first triggered fear, border closings and a steep economic downturn, but still very challenging. The report gave little hope for immediate improvement, either, as Kim mentioned a “heavy yet responsible agony” for the period to come.

From what was revealed, it appears the party hasn’t been able to make much progress toward the goals of the five-year economic plan outlined in January 2021. Although it is impossible to conclusively verify from the outside what is happening on the ground, the lack of progress must be clearly visible to the citizenry, many of whom will have seen no sign of promised improvements to “food, clothing, and housing” in a year during which COVID-19 containment measures have suffocated economic activity. But, as discussed below, it’s hard to tell exactly how much the country is suffering or, indeed, upon whom the burden is mainly falling.

Given the concern expressed in the plenum report about farming, we can assume a degree of difficulty for many North Koreans in getting food – either because it is in short supply or because market prices are out of reach for people who have seen their incomes fall. Kim delivered a long speech on what he called “our-style socialist rural development”, or in other words, what needs to be done to improve the agricultural system and bring North Korea closer to meeting the population’s food requirements. As always, the reported speech included a large measure of ideological conditioning of farmers and no shortage of exhortations for agricultural labourers to work harder. But it also touched upon agricultural modernisation and policies to remedy the worst effects of climate change, notably on production of North Korea’s staple crop, rice. It all indicates considerable concern for the state of the country’s agricultural performance.

How bad is the situation for ordinary people in North Korea?

From border regions – which are more accessible to outsiders thanks to cross-border cellular communications, and which we use as a rough proxy for other parts of the country outside Pyongyang – there is plentiful evidence of people facing difficulties in their daily lives. Because of a de facto zero-COVID-19 policy, the country’s border with China has been closed since January 2020, meaning large-scale cross-border trade and flows of people have stopped almost completely. The little reporting that has emerged from the North suggests that the closure has affected incomes, and thus demand seems to have switched from relatively costly rice to the cheaper alternative, corn, while market prices for manufactured goods have risen markedly as supplies dwindle. These phenomena have led to rising levels of poverty and food insecurity. North Korea’s northern neighbour and ally China may well already be sending humanitarian supplies, but if so, it is doing so (as ever) without fanfare, and it is impossible to identify who the beneficiaries are. Whatever the case, humanitarian assistance is no substitute for the restoration of cross-border trade.

North Korea is, however, nowhere near the famine that struck in the period 1995-1997, when as many as a million people may have perished. Back then, Pyongyang was forced to beg for international aid and had to open up its borders to deliveries of food and observers. Under Kim Jong-un since 2011, Pyongyang has taken significant steps toward deepening existing market mechanisms in the economy, even if in recent years it has sought to restore more state controls. The market economy as it is now constituted makes outright famine much less likely than it was in the 1990s, when the population’s reliance on the state’s rapidly disintegrating rationing system left millions at risk of starvation.

What have we learned about how Kim Jong-un has consolidated power over the last ten years?

Before Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke in the summer of 2008, he had greatly enfeebled the ruling party. In his heyday, the elder Kim ran an autocratic dictatorship in which the executive implemented decisions and the party rubber-stamped them, at best. When he took power in 2011 after a period of co-rule, Kim Jong-un didn’t have the authority to do that, and therefore needed to bring existing elites along with him in a way that his father did not. As a result, he emphasised the role of the party as the organ of decision-making and administration, with the cabinet as the overseer of the economy. By regularising the role of party congresses and plenums, he seems to have invited a measure of collective, if mostly top-down, discussion among officials at the national, regional and local levels, as well as among those working in industry. In a recent visual indication of this institutionalising trend, Kim Jong-un has overseen the removal of some images of his father and grandfather from public spaces, replacing them with party symbols.

But this modest commitment to collective rule doesn’t make much difference to the governing system’s coherence: Kim Jong-un remains supreme leader, and he has now placed faithful lieutenants in all the key party and cabinet positions, freeing him from having to rely excessively on members of his father’s team to rule. In other words, there is still no sign of change in North Korea’s underlying personalist power structure, and since the brutal elimination of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, also no indication of the emergence of anyone with an independent power base or the potential to construct one. If the regime can survive COVID-19 – which it has done so far, at least – it’s hard to see what could trip it up in the short to medium term.

Does the plenum report mean that North Korea will be focused on its internal problems in the coming year, and not on provoking the outside world?

It seems clear that North Korea plans to be internally focused in 2022. The plenum report didn’t mention military or foreign policy matters in any detail. Instead, it focused on the domestic economy, particularly agriculture. This is not, in all likelihood, because the leader wants to focus on agriculture, but because he has to: ensuring the country’s food security remains a major challenge. There’s also much uncertainty in the outside world, which could counsel a wait-and-see approach before Kim makes any major moves. South Korean elections in early March will result in a new leader for North Korea’s most direct rival. COVID-19 could wane, but it could also become an even bigger distraction.

Kim [Jong-un] continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal.

In any event, Kim continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal. He laid out the party’s priorities for military strengthening a year ago at the Eighth Congress, when launching the current planning cycle. These priorities, which continue to guide North Korea, were listed as: to keep developing nuclear technology, including tactical and “super-sized” warheads; to achieve accurate delivery of missiles within a radius of 15,000km (that is, the whole territory of the United States); to design hypersonic gliding flight warheads; to advance plans for solid-fuel intercontinental missiles; to possess a nuclear submarine and underwater-launch strategic nuclear weapon; to launch a military reconnaissance satellite; and to build reconnaissance drones with a 500km range (that is, the whole territory of South Korea).

Some of these goals are still remote. But in pursuit of others, North Korea has already done some new, high-profile military testing in 2021 and now also in 2022, including a launch on 5 January of what it claims was a hypersonic missile (possibly of the same make that was shown off at the country’s Self-Defence 2021 exhibition in October). There will certainly be more testing in the year to come, though the tempo and intensity could be affected by what happens with the pandemic and, correspondingly, the country’s economic health.

Does the plenum report suggest more of the same on the Korean peninsula for 2022?

On the whole, yes. But it is noteworthy that the plenum report quotes Kim Jong-un as saying that, as North Korea enters 2022, “we came to know what we can do”. This sentence seems to indicate he feels the country enjoys a degree of stability that was not there at the end of 2020, and that it is now a bit easier for North Korea to plan its international strategy. But it is not a statement of outright confidence, particularly given the unpredictable progress of the pandemic, which overshadows everything.

As best we can tell, North Korea's zero-COVID-19 policy has so far done a reasonably good job of controlling the virus. But the cornerstone of this strategy was sealing off its land borders. The closures have led not just to food insecurity and precipitously declining trade volumes, but also to the departure of much of Pyongyang’s diplomatic and NGO community, which opted to withdraw staff rather than operate under unworkable restrictions on freedom of movement into, out of and inside the country. Repeatedly, North Korea has seemed on the verge of reopening its borders to overland trade, but resurgences of the virus appear to have forced it to delay the measure and rely instead on modest volumes of goods coming into the west coast port of Nampo. There is now talk of a fresh attempt, but that seems unlikely in light of the omicron variant. Each new iteration of the pandemic poses potentially huge risks to a country that has rejected all attempts to supply it with effective vaccines.

The border closure will necessarily continue to affect all North Korea’s economic plans. Indeed, even the modest goal of upgrading the agricultural sector will involve imports of machinery, parts and chemical fertilisers. Any concerted new program of military testing will need hard currency, for which the only good source is trade with China.

What do current conditions mean for our understanding of North Korea?

Due to the pandemic and border closure, we presently know even less about what’s happening inside North Korea than usual. There are few diplomats, businesspeople, tourists or aid workers left. Organisations that maintain networks of citizen journalists inside North Korea or who rely on networks of resettled North Koreans in Seoul have less reporting to work with. These gaps directly affect how much information we have about the situation in the country, and the capacity to cross-reference anecdotal reports coming from the ground. The reopening of overland trade is a classic example. There are a handful of superficially plausible reports that the borders are going to reopen in January, but they’re very hard to cross-check.

For now, it seems likely that because of COVID-19, North Korea has for some time not been in a strong position to “provoke” the outside world as it has often done in the past. There is little to indicate that it has really wanted to, either, though that may be more a consequence of the pandemic forcing the state to review its priorities than its leadership’s tactical preferences. But the 5 January missile test is a reminder that we will be hearing from Pyongyang again.

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