United States military action against Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 drastically raised tensions in this, already volatile, region of the world. The response from Iran a few days later saw numerous rockets strike military bases inside Iraq which housed US military personell; the attack was claimed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a revenge strike.
This situation has both positives and negatives from Pyongyang’s perspective; however, most importantly, it adds a new layer of nuance to the already complicated relationship between Pyongyang and Washington.
General Qasem Soleimani was one of the top military figures in Iran
Right now, as Pyongyang has made it clear that it is no longer willing to engage with the United States in nuclear negotiations (with some caveats meant to leave the door open in the future) it is beneficial for them that, right now, the US military focus is on the Middle East rather than East Asia.
This does not mean that the United States is stretched thin in the region; the US military has historically attempted to build its power to a point where it believes it could successfully fight in two large-scale conflicts simultaneously. It does mean that the DPRK may be able to be more provocative in the region without any significant US response.
In 2019, the DPRK returned to missile testing; although it did not launch any long range missiles or ICBMs
纸老虎 – Paper Tiger
The term ‘Paper Tiger’ has been used in the past to describe Trump’s foreign policy and, until now, it seemed to be an accurate description. The few large-scale military actions ordered by the Trump administration were, in the grand scheme of things, small. The strike on Syria in 2018 was taken against a government already weakened by a civil war, the killing of the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was a long-term military priority for the US and it’s allies. The assassination of one of Iran’s top generals is the first time that the Trump administration has taken such a bold move against a sovereign country which has the power to fight back.
We can infer that the decision was likely taken by Trump with little consideration in an attempt to demonstrate his power. The lack of a credible explanation for the strike suggests this was not part of any long-term strategy by the White House. This should be worrying to any country which considers itself to be an opponent to the United States.
The threat of ‘drone hunting’ could now be seen as a very real threat for the DPRK and its military leadership. This increased threat could lead to both a reduction in provocations from Pyongyang under the current US administration as well increased investment and focus on national security and defence. Even before the Soleimani strike, the 2019 Central Committee Plenum saw a return to a Byungjin-style policy where it would develop both the military and economy simultanously. The Soleimani strike could see that decision swing even further in favour of the military.
The Central Committee met in December 2019 to agree new policies, many of which focused on a change to the military-economy balance
In the long term, the rising tensions with Iran will likely damage the trust between Washington and Pyongyang, which was already wavering. Many saw the US decision to pull out of the JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) as a step backwards for the region but also a sign that Washington was not a trustworthy negotiating partner. The risk of agreeing a deal only to have it torn up in front of you in the future is a problem for the DPRK.
There is a real risk here; any comprehensive agreement with the United States would more than likely involve revealing the locations of key sites related to their nuclear and missile programs. In the event that the deal collapses, like the JCPOA, this list could become a target list.
Many of these concerns were raised at the time of the US pull-out. However, with the strike on Soleimani, those fears have become real and will likely make the chances of agreeing a nuclear deal in the near future even less unlikely than it already is.
Kim Yong Nam led a Supreme People’s Assembly delegation to Iran in 2017
Overall, if Pyongyang decides that an attack by the US, of any scale, is a real possibility, it could revert focus back onto national security at the expense of the economy. If the government stops focusing on encouraging the lifting of UN sanctions and instead invests time and money into the military then the economy could suffer as a result.
In short, for the DPRK, the Iran strike adds a new perspective on the situation. The US’ lack of concessions may have been an annoyance for Pyongyang in 2019; but in 2020 that fear will be replaced by a US administration that is clearly willing to involve its military might in cases where negotiations have failed.