We know from a variety of press accounts that North Korea was toward the top of the list—if not the top of the list—of threats on which President-elect Trump received briefings from President Obama and the national intelligence establishment. As it turns out, this judgment is shared by experts outside the administration as well. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) 2017 Preventive Priorities Survey, North Korea ranked at the top of global flashpoints in 2017 along with a Russia-NATO confrontation.
The CFR survey asked foreign policy experts to rank conflicts based on both their likelihood of occurring or escalating and their potential impact on US national interests. According to the survey the DPRK ranked in the top tier, with a potentially high impact and moderate likelihood of “nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) weapons testing, a military provocation, or internal political instability.”
Based on the increasing rate at which Kim Jong-un has been conducting nuclear tests and missile launches, perhaps an “Impact: moderate; likelihood: high” rating might be more appropriate. Kim Jong Un may well decide to test a new US president in the months following his inauguration just as his father did to President Obama with the May 2009 nuclear test. On this point, we actually have some data thanks to CSIS’s Beyond Parallel project. They found that the average window for a North Korean provocation bracketed around all US elections was thirteen weeks for Kim Il Sung, six weeks for Kim Jong Il but only four weeks for the Young General.
Could Kim Jong Un choose to hold back? In addition to uncertainty about how President Trump might respond, an additional factor is the domestic political situation in Seoul. Since the protest movement began in earnest in November, North Korea has been relatively quiet, mock Blue House commando raids notwithstanding. North Korea has plenty to gain from Park’s ouster and a pro-engagement Minjoo party candidate entering the Blue House; in fact, the leading potential Minjoo candidates have already outlined ideas for greater engagement with North Korea, which we will outline in a future post. President Trump may have gotten some breathing room from President Park’s troubles, but I wouldn’t count on anything.