Nobody knows when North Korea will test its next nuclear warhead, but chances are high it will take some kind of provocative action prior to South Korea’s May 9 presidential election.
Analysts who track North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests say the regime regularly schedules these displays of force around key dates.
“We’ve looked at the history around elections, and there is a real pattern there,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has been tracking Pyongyang’s weapons programs. “They like to do provocations around elections, and particularly around U.S. and South Korean elections.”
Cha, speaking Thursday at a conference organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that, on average, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled these provocations 6.5 days prior to South Korean elections. When South Korea was preparing for its last presidential election, in December 2012, Pyongyang launched its first successful satellite – a demonstration of its long-range missile capabilities – a week before voters went to the polls.
If North Korea holds another nuclear test – its sixth – in coming days, it is unclear how the administration of President Donald Trump will respond. Trump has been hoping that pressure from China will prompt North Korea to slow or halt its weapons development. Another nuclear test could prompt the administration to bypass China and take unilateral action – either with military force or tougher sanctions on North Korea.
Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, declined to say how the United States might react in various scenarios. But she reiterated that the administration considers North Korea the nation’s top national-security concern.
“What we’ve seen is a ratcheting up of testing and development of their program that makes the problem really urgent and, frankly, has made it a global threat instead of just a regional problem,” Thornton said at Thursday’s conference.
They (North Korean dictators) like to do provocations around elections, and particularly around U.S. and South Korean elections.
Victor Cha, Center for Strategic and International Studies
In recent weeks, satellite imagery taken above North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site suggests the regime may be preparing for a new underground detonation. Such a nuclear test had been expected during the recent birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather. Instead, North Korea fired off another missile – which reportedly failed upon launch – a day after the so-called Day of the Sun celebration.
There’s also a chance that, instead of a nuclear test, North Korea would attempt to send another satellite into space, as it did in 2012 and again last year. Such a launch would present Trump with an immediate national-security challenge, given the regime’s advance nuclear capabilities, said Cha, the analyst.
“That three-stage missile, even if they say it has a satellite on it, we don’t know what is on top of that missile,” said Cha. Asked how Trump should respond to such an attempted launch, he replied: “That is one of the most difficult decisions that would have to be made.”
Since taking office, Trump and his national security team have signaled they may be forced to take military action against Pyongyang, saying that “all options are on the table.” On Wednesday, they invited all 100 U.S. senators to the White House for an unprecedented briefing on North Korea. On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council that will focus on the North Korea threat.
If the United States were to attack North Korea, even in a surgical strike against a missile launch, it would be sure to retaliate. One likely target would be the population of Seoul, South Korea, an urban region of more than 20 million people that would be vulnerable to North Korean artillery, sitting just 35 miles from the North Korean border.
The May 9 election in South Korea could complicate Trump’s plans in other ways. South Korea is holding the election to replace impeached former President Park Geun Hye, and one of the leading candidates is Democratic Party leader Moon Jae In, who has campaigned on taking a softer stance toward North Korea. If Moon were to win and attempt to resume relations with the north, it would undercut U.S. efforts to isolate Pyongyang.
Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state, said the administration hoped to unite a regional coalition in Asia that would exert “maximum pressure” on North Korea. Asked how long the administration is prepared to wait for positive signs from Pyongyang, she said: “We would want to see some results from this campaign in a matter of months, not a matter of years.”