North Korea is likely to start acting up again during the US presidential election
- North Korea has historically acted in a provocative manner like firing long-range missiles or shelling South Korea just a few weeks before or after a US election.
- A think-tank examined North Korea's behaviour during a 64-year span and found that it averaged a provocative act within the 4.5 weeks before or after a midterm or presidential election.
- One of the leading experts of the Korean Peninsula told Insider that if US President Donald Trump is reelected in November, he would make another haphazard deal with North Korea — one that "he'll talk about as being the greatest deal ever."
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North Korea has historically acted in a provocative manner a few weeks before or after a US election, leading foreign policy experts to brace for long-range missiles or other provocative acts around the upcoming presidential election in November.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington, D.C., recently examined North Korea's behaviour during a 64-year span and found that it averaged a provocative act within 4.5 weeks before or after a midterm or presidential American election.
The organisation found that the window of these provocative acts — which include a serious violation of international law, military actions that breach "the sovereignty of a third country," or personal injuries or damages to property — have narrowed during the election cycle.
When Kim Il Sung, North Korea's first leader and Kim Jong Un's grandfather, was in power, the average window for provocations was 13 weeks during an election year. Kim Il Sung's son and successor, Kim Jong Il, took over in 1994, and the average window shortened to 5.5 weeks.
After Kim Jong Un took his father's reins in 2011, that average was shortened again to 4.5 weeks.
"This was a pattern that emerged that we thought was quite interesting," Victor Cha, the National Security Council's former top Asia official, told Insider.
The former diplomat, who chairs the Korea department at CSIS and is a leading authority on matters regarding the Korean Peninsula, was previously the front-runner candidate for US ambassador to South Korea before being passed on by the Trump administration.
'Do you really think Hillary Clinton could win?'
North Korea's interest in American politics is not new. The US's relationship with South Korea and its hand in imposing international sanctions is a motivating factor to keep up-to-date with the ongoings in Washington, D.C.
This was apparent during the "Republican Revolution" in November 1994, when Republicans took over both chambers of Congress for the first time in decades. This transition of power would help scuttle a deal brokered between the Clinton administration and North Korea just one month earlier, which was expected to freeze the regime's nuclear reactors in exchange for light-water reactors, heavy fuel, and sanctions relief.
"To the extent they can, they pay very close attention to what's happening in the United States," Cha told Insider.
Cha recalled attending meetings with North Korean officials amid the 2016 presidential election, where he was asked, "Do you really think Hillary Clinton could win?"
North Korea has also gone beyond insulting heads of state by referencing individual lawmakers, calling them out for what it claimed were antagonising actions. During a televised interview in 2017, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado described North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a "whack job" and a "crazed maniac at the helm of one of the world's nuclear regimes."
North Korea's propaganda outlet responded by calling Gardner a "psychopath" who "perpetrated wicked blasphemy against our supreme dignity during an interview," according to UPI.
"That a man mixed in with human dirt like Gardner, who has lost basic judgment and body hair, could only spell misfortune for the United States," a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman reportedly said at the time.
Correlation, but not neccesarily causation
Cha stressed that there were a number of variables — such as scheduled weapons testing, South Korea's domestic policies, economic factors, and future negotiations with the US — that precluded him from deducing that North Korea's behaviour is solely prompted by an upcoming US election.
But Cha noted that based on the data, "there is definitely a pattern there."
"There are many possible explanations for why North Korea carries out provocations," Cha said. "The historical pattern that we found was that there were more of them during US election years. So regardless of what you think causes the provocations, there's at least a pattern."
"It tells us that if North Korea behaves like it normally would, we would see provocations around these elections — and if they don't, then maybe there are some other things happening inside the country that are affecting the way they behave externally," Cha added, pointing to reports of natural disasters, such as flooding, in the country.
The Korean peninsula faced one of its longest monsoon seasons in recorded history, potentially diverting the North's scarce resources elsewhere. Heavy rains caused landslides and severe flooding in South Korea, killing at least a dozen people, according to local reports.
North Korea is speculated to have experienced higher casualty rates given its vulnerability to flooding and its lacking infrastructure. Around 15% of the country's arable land was destroyed by floods in 1990s, according to one estimate, and a separate study approximated that over 2 million people died. North Korea claims that roughly 225,000 died during this period.
Meanwhile, human rights organisations have presumed Pyongyang is struggling to keep the coronavirus pandemic under control, contrary to regime's claims that it has little to no cases of infection. The regime may have exacerbated its predicament after it sealed its borders and refused to accept humanitarian aid, claiming that accepting such help would fuel the coronavirus within its borders.
Although CSIS's study examined decades of North Korean provocations, the results does not include those during the congressional midterm elections in 2018, where "there was a prolonged and anomalous period of no provocations."
This particular lull came after Trump and Kim's first meeting in Singapore, which capped off a year of bellicose "fire and fury" rhetoric and rocky relations between the two leaders. Shortly after Trump took office in 2017, North Korea fired about two dozen missiles, including its highest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile.
While the regime may portray itself as an unpredictable actor, North Korea's behaviour is calculated by holding off on any outward, provocative acts amidst peace talks, according to Cha. He predicted that based on the historical patterns, the regime would have resorted to its usual round of provocations this election year had it not been for the bilateral talks with the US.
"After Trump got elected, there was nothing going on in terms of diplomacy," Cha said. "North Korea, that following year, did 20 ballistic missile tests and a hydrogen bomb test. I think if left alone, they would do all sort of things."
"It's typical North Korean tactics to try to negotiate from a position of strength," Cha added. "By carrying out provocations, they put themselves in the position of being asked to walk down from the crisis."
But the bilateral talks, which Cha characterised as "made-for-TV summits," may not address many of the underlying concerns. Based on Trump's performance in the last four years, Cha believes that if reelected in November, the president would make another haphazard deal with North Korea — one that "he'll talk about as being the greatest deal ever."
Some evidence suggests North Korea continued to develop its weapons program, even after the 2018 summit and the exchange of so-called "love letters" between Trump and Kim. Current and former US and South Korean officials discovered Kim was continuing to process uranium and digging underground tunnels to move weapons, according to The Washington Post.
"I'm sure they like Trump," Cha said, referring to North Korean leaders. "Trump met with their leader three times and says nice things about their leader. And they probably see Biden as a continuation of President Barack Obama — and they did not like that administration."
Roughly a month after Obama was reelected in 2012, North Korea conducted a long-range rocket test, marking one of the quickest acts of provocation during a presidential election year.
"If Biden wins, I imagine that [the US] would immediately do a policy review because that's what a new administration does," Cha said. "It's possible that North Korea will carry out provocations to try to force the administration to deal with them right away."
Although Cha did not rule out the possibility of North Korea continuing its current détente under a potential Biden administration, he said it would be "highly unusual behavior."
"Right now, there is no agreement to get [North Korea] to stop producing fissile material or plutonium and uranium nuclear weapons," Cha said. "There's no formal agreement that they will no longer test nuclear weapons, and no formal agreement that they would actually stop testing long range ballistic missiles."
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