Slow Boil: What to Expect from the DPRK in 2024

Though it appears things could not get any worse with Kim Jong-un, CSIS Korea Chair analysis indicates there will likely be an uptick in North Korean belligerence in 2024. North Korea exhibits a tendency to ramp up provocations during U.S. election years. While diplomacy could stave off some of the violence, Kim Jong-un has rejected all calls from the Biden administration to meet. Instead, the regime has more than doubled the number of tests since 2021, compared to under the previous U.S. administration. A Trump victory in November could conceivably reduce North Korean provocations and increase South Korean talk about going nuclear at the same time.

Slow Boil 

There has been secular growth in North Korean provocations and missile testing over the past four U.S. administrations (see Figure 1). These have accelerated further over the past three years, representing a 112 percent increase of North Korean testing over the previous U.S. and South Korean administrations (see Figure 2).

Remote Visualization

The higher volume of testing over the past three years is due to a number of factors. One reason could be scientific and related to development and perfecting of weapons systems. That is, North Korea has an accelerated program of experimental testing for each class of missile it is developing—the latest instance being the January 14 test of an alleged intermediate range ballistic missile with a hypersonic warhead vehicle. A second cause for the frequency of demonstrations could be related not to developmental testing but to operational exercising of the short- and longer-range missile capabilities. We have seen North Korea carry out, for example, a series of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) and medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) launches, in conjunction with bomber runs. This is not experimental testing—rather, it is exercising of war plans. A third reason could be related to diplomacy (or lack thereof). A study by CSIS found that periods of sustained U.S.-Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) bilateral diplomacy coincide with a relatively lower number of provocations compared with periods when diplomacy is absent. 

Fasten Your Seat Belts 

There is reason to believe that North Korean belligerence will increase in 2024. North Korea tends to ramp up provocations in U.S. election years. According to CSIS data, the average number of provocations between January 1 of a major U.S. election year (defined as either a midterm election or presidential election) through the State of the Union speech by the elected or reelected president the following year has increased by 375 percent (or by over 4.5 times) during the Kim Jong-un regime when compared with the average number of provocations during the preceding government of Kim Jong-il (see Figure 3). 

Remote Visualization

In addition, North Korea tends to ramp up provocations around U.S.-ROK military exercises when these exercises are preceded by a period of non-dialogue in U.S.-DPRK relations, according to a previous CSIS study. The United States and South Korea will carry out annual major military maneuver exercises in the first quarter of the year, which is likely to be preceded or followed by North Korean provocations. Following on from the directives of the U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral leaders’ summit at Camp David this past summer, moreover, the three allies plan to carry out the first named trilateral military exercise during the same time frame, which Pyongyang will almost certainly respond to. 

All these patterns suggest 2024 will be a rocky year. This is not the fault of the Biden administration and its allies. North Korea has shown no interest in dialogue with the United States despite numerous efforts by the administration to make contact. White House officials informally count at least 20 occasions on which they have failed to elicit a response for dialogue without preconditions. Moreover, planned military exercises, whether bilateral or trilateral, are necessary to maintain the credibility of deterrence and hence peace on the peninsula.

For the Biden administration to set out a policy goal of staving off these provocations in 2024 would be effectively setting itself up for failure as North Korea is not interested in talking for now. Kim Jong-un’s New Year address has made clear his plan for least three more long-range rocket launches to put three more satellites into orbit. 

Accepting that 2024 will see such provocations may sound too fatalistic of a choice for policymakers, but it also ensures that a unilateral lifting of sanctions or suspension of military exercises will not become wasted concessions that damage allied trust and defense readiness. Instead, the forthcoming provocations should serve as a platform for greater consolidation of U.S.-Japan-Korea security ties. This should not only include more and varied forms of trilateral exercising in missile defense, early warning data-sharing, intelligence-sharing, extended deterrence, and contingency planning but also consideration of a first-ever bilateral security declaration between Seoul and Tokyo. This could be along the lines of the first iteration of the Japan-Australia security declaration inked in 2007 which stated the common alignment on fundamental security principles. This might eventually build to a revised and more detailed declaration, just as Tokyo and Canberra did in 2022.

The United States could respond to ramped-up North Korean missile demonstrations with more pressure on China to regulate the behavior of its communist brethren. China reportedly has played a role in preventing the long-anticipated seventh nuclear test by the North. Although Beijing routinely maintains that its influence over Kim is limited, it jealously guards that influence whenever Pyongyang grows closer to other major powers in the neighborhood like the United States (Trump in 2018) or Russia (Putin today). In this regard, rampant missile shots by Kim could be used to motivate Xi Jinping to stop DPRK from further destabilizing China’s neighborhood through Kim’s recent and burgeoning military cooperation with Russia. Additional sanctions, if unable to organize through the UN Security Council, could be coordinated under the auspices of the G7 and the NATO + Asia Pacific Four (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand).

The Biden administration can pursue these policies in 2024 while still leaving open the prospects for diplomacy, however remote. Former U.S. diplomats have written on what could be put on offer as a form of “patient engagement” in return for a testing moratorium, human rights dialogue, and other threat reduction measures. Admittedly, this will not be easy.

What if Trump Wins in November? 

A Trump victory in November could result in a decrease in North Korean provocations, but ironically, could also lead to an increase in South Korean support for acquiring its own nuclear weapons. Trump would likely befriend Kim Jong-un again and offer discontinuation of military exercises for a DPRK test ban. Indeed, the only year in which North Korea conducted no provocations was in 2018, when Trump made such a deal. This agreement, however, did little to achieve denuclearization and hurt allied military readiness.    

At the same time, Trump's “America First” posture and his willingness to decouple intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats to the U.S. homeland from SRBM threats to nearby allies will undermine the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence and would retard much of the work accomplished by the Biden administration’s Washington Declaration and Nuclear Consultative Group in shoring up the U.S. nuclear umbrella over its ally. Furthermore, Trump’s obsession with withdrawing troops from Korea (and from other allied bases) would rattle credibility in the U.S. security commitment. The result could be increased calls in South Korea among the public and policy elites for “going nuclear” regardless of the decreased tempo of North Korean provocations and missile exercises.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Andy Sau Ngai Lim is an associate fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair
Andy Lim
Associate Fellow, Korea Chair