Inferring from signaling: North Korea’s deterrence strategy and bargaining tactic

What might Pyongyang's continued missile tests, public statements, and military exercises signal ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea?

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The level of open-source information regarding North Korea is limited, often selective, delayed, and ambiguous. Although its state media conveys Pyongyang’s propaganda on a daily basis, much of this is “noise” to sustain an (intended) image of North Korea’s self-reliance and continuous fight against surrounding imperialists. Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric in 2019 and 2020, the increase and nature of high-level statements as well as missile tests present purposive signals. In adversarial relationships, states signal strategically in line with bargaining contexts; signaling nevertheless provides clues for analyzing the logic of apparent behavior.

Pyongyang’s missile testing serves domestic, bargaining, and technological purposes. In March and mid-April North Korea conducted five flight-tests of ballistic missiles as well as seven army, air force, and artillery drills between the end of February and mid-April. Considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, testing activities and military exercises project images of normalcy and enduring strength – although the regime denies any (past or present) cases of infection, public health remains an urgent issue.1 In the context of North Korea’s general economic and political situation, missile testing serves to mobilize domestic support and prove to internal and external audiences that sanctions do not have intended effects of desperation and surrender. 2020 is the third year under harsh sanctions.2 It is also the last year of Kim Jong Un’s five-year plan and the ruling Worker’s Party Korea (WPK) celebrates its 75th anniversary on October 10, 2020.3 Preparations of a major military parade for that occasion appear underway.

In terms of bargaining with the United States, Pyongyang’s tests (and other weapons activities) illustrate that the regime does not accept restrictions on its nuclear and missile programs in the absence of concessions from Washington. What is being launched, how this is portrayed in state media, and how this supports Kim Jong Un’s major announcements serve as the basis for establishing North Korea’s apparent deterrence strategy and bargaining tactic.

Latest ballistic missile improvements

North Korea conducted its last flight test of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017. Kim Jong Un’s declaration of long range ballistic missile and nuclear test moratoria in April 2018 set the stage for its diplomatic talks with South Korea and the United States. Starting from May 2019, however, Pyongyang resumed flight-testing shorter range systems and conducting engine tests. Its recent testing activities continue a trend of improving flexibility and mobility, a trend that focused in 2016 and 2017 on medium-range ballistic missiles. Between May 2019 and March 2020, North Korea conducted tests of three systems of short-range missiles: KN-23, which has external similarities to the Russian Iskander-M and South Korean Hyunmoo-2B4, KN-24 with external similarities to the US Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), and KN-25, a system that is described as a multiple missile launch system or long-range artillery system. All these systems are road-mobile using transporter erector launchers (TEL) as well as solid-fueled (solid-fueled missiles can be deployed faster and better hidden since they can be transported in a fueled state). Pyongyang appears to have successfully developed solid-fuel engines for short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles, but not for intermediate- and long-range missiles (yet).

KN-24 and KN-25 were tested in August and September 2019 as well as March 2020. A comparison of available information shows an improvement of multiple launch rapidity: Only 20 seconds elapsed between two launches of the KN-25 system (previously requiring up to 17 minutes between launches); the multiple launch time of KN-24 was reduced from 15 minutes to 5 minutes. Both systems plus the KN-23 are likely to be operational; they can potentially strike targets anywhere in South Korea, including US troops and missile defense systems deployed there. It is difficult to assess whether these systems can carry only conventional warheads or nuclear warheads, as well as biological/chemical warfare agents; warhead ambiguity serves here to increase the perceived threat from short-range missiles. As an example, the possibility that KN-24 can technically carry a nuclear warhead cannot be completely dismissed.

In October 2019 Pyongyang tested the Pukguksong-3 (KN-26) for the first time, a sea-based solid-fueled system of up to 1,900 kilometers range. North Korean state media claims to have successfully conducted the test from a submarine; according to the Pentagon, however, Pukguksong-3 was launched from an underwater platform. Its sea-based predecessor, Pukguksong-1 (KN-11), was tested six times between May 2015 and August 2016, once from an undersea platform and the other launches from a submarine.5 Such a course of testing is also conceivable for Pukguksong-3. Pyongyang possesses a Sinpo B-class submarine which can be used for the deployment of ballistic missiles.6 Since October 2017, North Korea has been working on a successor model, the Sinpo-C class, which was likely showcased in state media imagery in July 2019. Even though the operational status of its submarines is questionable, Pyongyang’s ambitions to possess submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) cannot be underestimated; determination for a sea-based dimension to its nuclear deterrent are apparent. In fact, commercial satellite imagery from early April 2020 outlines ejection tests at Sinpo Shipyard, potentially in preparation of sea-based launches.7

While Pyongyang resumed short- and medium-range missile testing, it refrains from testing longer range missiles or conducting engine tests for ICBMs. Satellite imagery from January 2020 outline no relevant activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. North Korea also continues to abstain from testing nuclear explosive devices as regular satellite imagery show caretaking activities but no indications of site reactivation at Pyunggye-ri. Instead, Pyongyang continues to improve its ballistic missile infrastructure: it completed construction of a facility for the manufacture of mobile launch vehicles; previously, TELs were imported as vehicles for civilian use such as logging and construction, then assembled and modulated for military purposes. The regime is also constructing a facility at Sil-li presumably for the assembly and accommodation of missiles and launchers, in the vicinity of an underground facility, a rocket manufacturing facility, and an engine manufacturing facility.

Pyongyang’s deterrence strategy

North Korea’s military is inferior in quality to the South Korean military, even more when supported by US forces. The large amount of ground forces, the location of artillery along the DMZ and its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) provide Pyongyang with asymmetrical advantages. While its biological and chemical weapons programs remain largely unknown, North Korean state media continuously emphasizes the deterrence purpose of its nuclear weapons programs, a truly credible deterrent of war (진짜 믿을수 있는 전쟁 억제력).8 The overriding priority is regime survival; nuclear weapons serve to deter invasion or disarming strike by the United States.

Deterrence by denial or deterrence by punishment are no certain options for Pyongyang: North Korea cannot prevent attack by making it infeasible for Washington to attain its objectives of a strike, nor can it retaliate massively.9 Pyongyang can, however, increase the costs of attack to a significant level; the regime’s strategy of minimal nuclear deterrence bases on deterrence by risk and encompasses three components: the risk of direct threat to the continental United States, second strike capabilities, and resolve.10

North Korea possesses two different ICBM models (see Table B, above); it flight-tested its Hwasong-14 twice in July 2017 and Hwasong-15 once in November 2017. The technical reliability of these systems, particularly of re-entry vehicles and guidance systems, remains uncertain. ICBM-tests (and nuclear tests) present a redline for Washington, however; resuming such provocative testing would also strain good relations with Beijing (and Moscow), relations that include the support of sanctions relief in the Security Council (and assistance in sanctions evasion). Although flight-testing would improve ICBM credibility, the technical possibility to deliver a nuclear explosive to the U.S. mainland already poses a significant risk to Washington – especially considering the regime’s paranoia and willingness to defend itself. From Pyongyang’s point of view, it has acquired the capability to harm its arch enemy, its militarily-superior and geographically distant adversary. Compensating for technical uncertainties of its ICBMs, Pyongyang has showcased other advancements of its nuclear program: The Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex includes plutonium reprocessing, high enrichment of uranium as well as the production of tritium. Other probable fissile material production facilities remain undisclosed; the uranium enrichment facility in Kangson is known through open source intelligence.11 The regime is likely able to produce both fission and fusion bombs; the last nuclear test in September 2017 exceeded a yield of 140 kilotons, suggesting the ability to build a thermonuclear bomb (or boosted fission bomb). The US intelligence community believes Pyongyang to have mastered the miniaturization for nuclear warheads, which is necessary to equip ICBMs with nuclear explosives.

Possessing a (reliable) second strike capability is a difficult technological endeavor as well, but one that Pyongyang is able to improve while remaining below the redline of not conducting ICBMs or nuclear tests. In contrast to other states’ second strike capabilities, a retaliatory strike by the Kim regime would likely target U.S. military bases in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere in the Pacific, with conventional warheads or WMD. Assuming that a preventive, disarming first strike would first and foremost aim to destroy North Korea’s ICBM capability, the rest of its ballistic missiles would need to survive and be operationally ready. To achieve this goal, a diverse arsenal of mobile ballistic missiles and their storage underground are essential. Pyongyang’s latest improvements of rapidly deployable multiple launch rocket systems increase the likelihood of circumventing missile defense; a reliable ability to launch ballistic missiles from sea would contribute to evading detection and interception as well. These latest weapons developments are all solid-fueled. In 2016 and 2017, Pyongyang conducted a number of flight-tests of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, such as Hwasong-12, Musudan and Nodong. These systems are all road-mobile and liquid-fueled; though solid propellants are certainly of interest, the regime then already declared successful weapons developments and the mass-production of systems.

Last, but certainly not least, Pyongyang has cultivated an image of resolve over decades. The regime’s internal propaganda as well as its reporting of military exercises and high-level meetings consistently feature the determination to fight, constant mobilization and acclaimed martyrdom for national defense. State media reports framed missile testing events in March 2020 as military exercises, activities not for weapons development but for weapons improvement and operability. The state of war is the main theme of every military-related reporting; high-alert, reliability and surprise are thus continuous, important elements in North Korean signaling.12 Whereas short-range systems as tested in 2019-2020 serve to launch reliable counter-strikes in response to surprise attacks, long-range missiles provide the capability to strike “any region and place any time”.13 Projecting an image of (regime) cohesion, sure retaliation for the sake of regime security and defense, reports of some missile tests emphasize the absence of Kim Jong Un and his on-site guidance.14 The regime’s image of resolve encompasses operational readiness, regime cohesion and determination. It also remains ambiguous regarding a possible first use of nuclear weapons: Pyongyang is reportedly determined to use nuclear weapons in response to an existential attack; a conventional decapitation strike could therefore be met with a nuclear retaliatory strike. In this context, the proclaimed objective of nuclear war deterrence (핵전쟁억제력) reads as nuclear deterrence of nuclear war rather than nuclear deterrence of war, presuming nuclear first-strikes by North Korea or by the US.15

Signaling and Bargaining Tactics

Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program increased international condemnation, isolation, and enforced punishment, but it also provides the regime with an asymmetric military asset and bargaining leverage. Besides the frequently emphasized deterrence purpose, Kim Jong Un referred to nuclear weapons as means to “control the political situation” (주변정치정세의 통제력).16

Testing activities can have bargaining purposes vis-à-vis the United States: for example, Pyongyang conducted the Pukguksong-3-test a few days before working level talks in October 2019, the last direct negotiations between US and North Korea. Kim Jong Un’s presence was, however, removed from media reporting. In December 2019, Pyongyang conducted two engine tests at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, heightening fears of solid-fuel engines for long-range missiles and a looming ICBM test. According to U.S. and South Korean media reports, Kim Jong Un had promised the dismantlement of the Sohae facility during summitry in June and September 2018. Outside experts expected major testing events around mid-April 2020; according to South Korean reporting, Pyongyang indeed launched surface-to-ship cruise missiles and air-to-ground missiles from fighter jets, but in absence of Kim Jong Un and North Korean state media reporting.

Threats are an elemental part of Pyongyang’s rhetoric, often in order to relay a sense of urgency and compel accommodation by Washington. In his New Years’ speech, Kim Jong Un proclaimed a “new way” for 2019 and set an ultimatum for negotiations with the US by the end of the year.17 Foreign Ministry officials’ statements on a looming “Christmas gift” aimed to reconfirm and increase the perceived menace of this ultimatum.18 This threat was “specified” at the end of 2019 when Kim Jong Un suggested his consideration of resuming long-range missile tests and promised that “the world would soon witness a new strategic weapon”.19 If, when and how these threats are implemented remains to be seen; conceivable are a new solid-fueled (intermediate-range) ballistic missile or submarine to be tested or shown e.g. at the military parade in October. Irrespective of the specificity or credibility of military threats, Pyongyang fosters its posture of intransigence: Kim Jong Un linked the permanence and further development of the regime’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs with the fait accompli of the sanctions regime.20 A recent meeting of the Central Military Commission contributed to the narrative of increasing “nuclear war deterrence” and “putting strategic armed forces on high alert”; continuous weapons development and readiness are “in line with the general requirement for the building and development of the armed forces”.21 This does not suggest imminent military hostility, but the regime’s continued improvement of its deterrence by risk.

In addition to weapons developments and verbal posturing, personnel changes contribute to signaling resolve. Although personnel turnover stems also from generational shifts and other domestic reasons, the timing to change key government and diplomatic positions in April 2019 and January 2020 – after the Hanoi summit and the ultimatum for negotiations – is notable. As an example, long-standing career diplomat Ri Yong Ho, who was involved in negotiations with the U.S. since the 1990s, was replaced as foreign minister by former military and intelligence official Ri Son Gwon. Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong was present at all summits with Donald Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in; North Korean state media first issued statements in her name in March and June 2020. While her actual power in policy-making remains speculative, the regime established a new level of addressor for signaling, a level between “normal” top tier officials and the supreme leader, attributing statements with peculiar authority without exhausting ultimate authority.22

Two of Kim Yo Jong’s four statements addressed US-North Korea relations while the other two were directed against South Korea. Her March statement served as a response to the received letter from Donald Trump to Kim Jong Un. While lauding the good relationship between the two leaders, she argued that their personal relations do not automatically improve hostile relations between the two countries.23 Her July statement reaffirmed this argument by outlining the discord between the US president and his administration as well as the continuity of US “hostility”.24 This statement responded to discussions in South Korea and the US concerning the possibility of a US-North Korea summit in 2020.25 Kim Yo Jong elaborates her “personal opinions” that summitry is beneficial for Washington, not for Pyongyang, and that the proposal made in Hanoi is off the table. Her statement presents a well-constructed bargaining signal that employs images of strength, resolve and autarky while reassuring benign intentions and the possibility of denuclearization as a long-term reciprocal process. Strikingly, Kim Yo Jong’s statements are the only texts that mention Donald Trump by name. Other high-level statements in North Korean media do not explicitly address the White House; Pyongyang’s foreign minister mentioned only U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by name in his unforgiving statement in commemoration of the Singapore summit.26

Political hostility towards South Korea

While missile testing has been paused since mid-April2020, North Korea made headlines in June 2020, with Pyongyang announcing it had ceased all communication lines with Seoul – except for intelligence channels. It also destroyed the liaison office at Kaesong that was established in 2018 and provided for regular working-level talks between the two Koreas, with dramatic explosions. The (North) Korean People’s Army further threatened to (re)install guard posts within the Demilitarized Zone and deploy troops to two areas of previous inter-Korean economic cooperation, the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang Tourism Zone.27 Inter-Korean cooperation had already deteriorated since the failed Hanoi summit in February 2019, when Pyongyang disregarded Seoul’s proposals for high-level political and military-to-military talks, temporarily withdrew its staff from the Kaesong liaison office and agreed to only working-level talks. Actual military escalation remains absent (for now); the Kim regime reversed military tension reduction and political confidence-building measures.

The resumption of sending counter-propaganda leaflets by South Korean activists serves here merely as a convenient trigger; Pyongyang’s actions mount pressure on an accommodating administration in Seoul with parliamentary majority, two North Korean defectors in conservative parliamentary opposition and in disagreement with Washington over defense cost-sharing. North Korea’s hostility against South Korea might attempt to exploit this alliance rift or cause a stir to increase relevance without risking severed ties to the White House. Pyongyang’s actions might well have domestic reasons since there are little economic successes to showcase at the major party anniversary in October 2020 and enemy images are serviceable for propaganda. The fact that North Korean state media issued statements that personally insulted Moon Jae-in in Kim Yo Jong’s name might relate less to her role in policy-making and more to the purpose of increasing severity without escalating in the name of the supreme leader: Kim Yo Jong was the first member of the ruling Kim family to set foot on South Korean soil since the Korean War as a member of the North’s delegation to the PyeongChang Olympic Games – the sports diplomatic context that set the basis for inter-Korean summitry in 2018. Her association with a “charm offensive” and “smile diplomacy”, positive depictions according to South Korean newspapers, adds more injury to the insults relayed in her recent statements.

Nothing to celebrate

North Korea’s apparent deterrence strategy and bargaining tactic illustrate the regime’s intransigence and preparation to play for time. Its weapons developments, belligerent signaling, and calibrated hostility towards South Korea aim to maintain a level of (media) attention and of threat without risking actual (military) escalations. On the one hand, the lack of negotiations with (and concessions by) Washington disappoint Pyongyang’s desire for improved relations, trade resumption, and economic development through sanctions relief. On the other hand, the White House’s downplaying of short-range ballistic missile tests and current disinterest in deal-making provide the Kim regime with enough leeway to continue weapons developments and improve its deterrence posture. Although reliability of its ICBM capability requires flight-tests, this would endanger favorable ties with Washington as well as with Beijing (and Moscow).

The level of sanctions on Pyongyang and its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are unprecedented. North Korea has shown perseverance in economic hardships and “creativity” in procuring revenue through sanctions evasion, money laundering, and other criminal (cyber) activities. Still, considering continued international isolation and absent trade – aggravated through issues of public health – it will be difficult for the Kim regime to formulate victory narratives that boost the regime’s political legitimacy before the 75th anniversary of the Workers Party Korea in October 2020.


    1. At the beginning of July, Kim Jong Un lauded the implementation of six months-long anti-epidemic work and stressed the need for strict continuity; see: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides 14th Enlarged Meeting of Political Bureau of 7th Central Committee of WPK,” KCNA, 3 July 2020.
    2. Since all trade remains prohibited, the general economy and population presumably suffer; the combination of sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic leads to assessments of food shortages. (see: Previously, the regime successfully evaded sanctions using tactics like ship-to-ship transfers to export of coal and sand. (see:
    3. The 2016-2020 plan promised boosts of energy production, infrastructure, and trade. Some scholars believe this five-year plan to be invalid, however, as it has not been mentioned since early 2019. (see:
    4. This model was possibly presented at a military parade in February 2018. (see:
    5. The intermediate model (with solid-fueled and two-stage engine, land-based only) Pukguksong-2 was tested twice in 2017. (see:
    6. Additionally, North Korea has a horde of submarines, particularly for purposes of infiltration & espionage. (see:
    7. Satellite imagery analysis from June 2020, however, negates the apparent construction of an expected, new submarine able to launch ballistic missiles. (see:
    8. “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Observes Demonstration Fire of Tactical Guided Weapon,” KCNA, March 22, 2020.
    9. These concepts of deterrence relate to the deterrence relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States; see: Glenn H. Snyder, Deterrence by Denial and Punishment, Princeton, N.J.: Center of International Studies, 1959. Nuclear deterrence strategies of other nuclear possessor states include catalytic posture of involving a third party, assured retaliation and second-strike, asymmetric escalation of nuclear retaliation to a conventional strike; see: Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, Princeton University Press, 2014. Pyongyang appears to combine the last two strategies as components of its deterrence posture.
    10. The notion of existential deterrence – coined by McGeorge Bundy, “Bishops and the Bomb,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 10, 16 June 1983 – does not fully apply to North Korea since not the mere existence of nuclear weapons (aims to) deter the United States, but the existence of ICBMs and miniaturized nuclear warheads.
    11. Another undisclosed facility identified through open source satellite imagery is suspected to be a nuclear warhead manufacturing facility at Wollo-ri. (see:
    12. Just recently, the high-alert posture and reliability of operational systems and command were examined and confirmed; see: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, 19 July 2020.
    13. “Kim Jong Un Guides Second Test-fire of ICBM Hwasong-14,” KCNA, 29 July 2017.
    14. “Test-Fire of Super-large Multiple Rocket Launchers Conducted in DPRK,” KCNA, 30 March 2020.
    15. North Korea either refers to its nuclear weapons program as nuclear deterrent or nuclear war deterrent. In his end of the year speech, Kim Jong Un used the second term; see: “Report of the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK,” KCNA, 31 December 2019.
    16. “Report of the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” KCNA, 1 January 2020.
    17. “New Year Address of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un for 2019,” Rodong Shinmun, 1 January 2019; “On Socialist Construction and the Internal and External Policies of the Government of the Republic at the Present Stage,” KCNA, 12 April 2019.
    18. “DPRK Vice Foreign Minister for U.S. Affairs Issues Statement,” KCNA, 3 December 2019.
    19. “Report of the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” KCNA, 1 January 2020.
    20. Ibid
    21. “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, 24 May 2020.
    22. In North Korea’s hereditary system, the “Baekdu Bloodline” is fundamental to the legitimacy of its rulers. Politically active siblings also existing previously: Kim Il Sung’s brother, Kim Yong Ju signed the joint declaration with South Korea in 1972; Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui was influential in the early 2000s. Kim Yo Jong is, however, the first to issue public statements to external audiences. (see:
    23. “Kim Yo Jong, First Vice Department Director of WPK Central Committee, Issues Statement,” KCNA, 22 March 2020.
    24. “Press Statement by Kim Yo Jong, First Vice Department Director of Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea,” KCNA, 10 July 2020.
    25. North Korea issued two previous high-level statements that negated Pyongyang’s interest in negotiations; see: “Director General of Department of U.S. Affairs of DPRK Foreign Ministry Issues Statement,” KCNA, 7 July 2020; “Statement of First Vice-Foreign Minister of DPRK,” KCNA, 4 July 2020.
    26. “Our Message to U.S. is Clear: Ri Son Gwon, Minister of Foreign Affairs of DPRK,” KCNA, 12 June 2020.
    27. This statement was issued by an unnamed official; see: “Our Army Will Provide Sure Military Guarantee for All External and Internal Measures of Party and Government: Spokesman for KPA General Staff,” KCNA, 17 June 2020. The threat was later “put on hold” by the Central Military Commission, presided by Kim Jong Un; see: “South Korean Military Warned against Imprudent Acts,” KCNA, 24 June 2020.
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