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What provocations could N. Korea conduct over the next several months?

This year marks the fourth year in North Korea’s critical five-year plan for economic and defense development, as well as a major milestone on the road to the Ninth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (to be held in or possibly before January 2026). It is thus a year that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has attached great importance. This significance is further enhanced by an expected revision of the North Korean constitution, South Korean parliamentary elections in April, South Korean-U.S. joint military exercises in August, the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of the “National Community Reunification Plan,” and the U.S. presidential election in November.

The decisive turning point in North Korea’s future provocations is likely to come after the rubber-stamp Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) amends its constitution. That’s because Pyongyang’s reactions after the addition of a territorial clause to its constitution will be markedly different than before.

What could happen before a constitutional amendment

Kim dropped the megaton bomb about Korea being “two states” and expressed his willingness to go to war earlier this year. As a result, he is likely to focus more on monitoring reactions from South Korea and other neighboring countries and implementing the promises he made in his speeches than on carrying out high-level military provocations – at least for the time being.

In other words, while maintaining the current high level of tension through inflammatory language and provocations involving strategic weapons, Kim is likely to focus on the following activities: (1) domestically, reviewing the constitutional amendment, demolishing symbolic structures, and deleting language related to pan-Korean nationalism and reunification; (2) concerning South Korea, promoting internal strife by stoking fears of the possibility of war; and (3) diplomatically, seeking to strengthen cooperation with China and Russia and drive a wedge in trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan through backdoor negotiations with Japan.*

After the constitutional amendment

The five-year terms of representatives in North Korea’s SPA, which has the power to amend the constitution, are due to expire on Mar. 10; strangely, however, there has been no indication that the North will hold elections. This suggests that Kim is carefully considering the importance and potential impact of the next SPA.**

Factors influencing North Korea’s decision on when to convene the SPA include (1) progress in implementing plans to amend the constitution, demolish symbolic structures and eliminate outdated language; (2) major political, military, and diplomatic events, including the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises in March and August, the South Korean general election in April and the U.S. presidential election in November; and (3) the appearance in late spring of the southeastern wind, which is ideal for launching balloons filled with propaganda leaflets into the North.

Taking all these factors into account, Kim Jong Un is likely to keep the situation calm and stable while delaying the SPA elections and inaugural session as long as possible, possibly holding the elections in April and convening the SPA to amend the constitution in May.

Potential provocations

Despite the fears of some experts, the likelihood of North Korea starting a war is relatively low for the following reasons: (1) the fact that an all-out war would spell the end of the Kim regime; (2) Kim’s establishment of medium- and long-term plans, including the 20×10 regional development policy; (3) Russia’s demand for arms exports and the resulting difficulty for North Korea to procure war supplies; (4) increased surveillance and intelligence activities of North Korea by South Korea, the U.S., and Japan; and (5) the domestic situation in China and Russia.

Nevertheless, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol must focus on crisis management, taking into account all possible contingencies, including local clashes aimed at manipulating the political situation, the escalation of a local clash into an all-out war, and a surprise invasion of South Korea based on a miscalculation by Kim.

Provocative behaviors that can be expected in the future include the following: (1) an unmistakable armed provocation, such as the bombardment of Yonpyong Island; (2) an ambiguous provocation that could thwart a short-term blame game, such as the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan corvette; (3) an act of terrorism against a public figure; (4) a test launch of a weapon of mass destruction; (5) actions aimed at expanding North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, such as the reactivation of the Yongbyon nuclear facility or a seventh nuclear weapons test; (6) incitement to an armed provocation, such as an attack on South Korea’s nuclear facilities; and (6) incitement of armed struggle by anti-government forces; (7) a plan to introduce pro-North Korean forces into the establishment; (8) the dissemination of “fake news” in the cyber domain; (9) cyber attacks aimed at crippling the computer networks of government organizations; and (10) an act of terrorism against the general public.


North Korea’s future provocations will likely (1) take place either in separate or hybrid formats; (2) on the five fronts of ground, sea, air, cyberspace, and outer space; and that (3) the format of these provocations after the constitutional amendment (during the next SPA opening session) will be different from before.

Therefore, the first litmus test of Kim’s new “two-state” narrative and his willingness to go to war against South Korea is likely to be the firmness of his response to South Korean military activities around the Northern Limit Line and civilian launches of propaganda balloons – which Kim has characterized as a territorial incursion – after the next SPA amends the constitution at its opening session, which is likely to be convened in mid-May.

South Korea must actively manage potential crises by (1) cooperating with civilian balloon launches secretly rather than publicly and at night rather than during the day; (2) giving advance warning of “red lines”; and (3) conducting full-scale joint operations with the U.S. on all fronts.

*On Jan. 5, Kim Jong Un sent a telegram of condolence to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida about the earthquake victims in which he addressed the prime minister in the most respectful terms. Then, on Feb. 15, Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong mentioned the possibility of Kishida visiting North Korea and establishing diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and called on Japan to make a bold decision, although she mentioned preconditions related to the issues of North Korea’s nuclear program and the abduction of Japanese citizens.

**According to precedent, the normal procedure would be to announce the elections in early January, hold them around Mar. 11, and convene representatives for the opening session (to re-elect the chairman of the State Affairs Commission and amend the constitution), but these events have been repeatedly postponed.

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK. Please send any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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February 21, 2024 at 07:00AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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