Season of Provocation: September for Kim Jong-Un

An old Korean idiom avers that September is the season ‘when horses gain weight and the sky is high (천고마비 天高馬肥)’, meaning a time of ease and relaxation. As autumn weighs in, Koreans often can see a clear sky with no clouds.

However, September is also the season of terror for many: the 9/11 attack in 2001 and the Munich massacre unleashed by the notorious Black September Organization on September 5, 1972.

September is also big for North Korea but many Western analysts do not know much about it. Its grand military parade has always been held on September 9 for years.

Black September Organization and September 9

Historically, the Black September Organization mentioned above has some connection to North Korea through its key founding figure Abu Nidal who was the mastermind behind the Gimpo airport bomb explosion in South Korea on September 14, 1986. North Korean leader Kim Il Sung sponsored Abu Nidal to carry out a terror plot against South Korea. Kim Il Sung also provided military training for Abu Nidal’s militants. This is a rare instance of one of North Korean proxy attacks being confirmed globally. This case was again confirmed by a Japanese journalist’s acquisition of East Germany’s Intelligence Agency STASI’s Department XXII old document in 2009: Kim Il Sung wanted to interrupt the 1986 Seoul Asian Games and the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988 at that time.

When we write September 9 in date format, it indicates double nines: so North Koreans call it ‘Goo Goo Jeol’ (구구절) meaning ‘nine nine day’ just as we call 9/11 as ‘nine eleven.’ Kim Il Sung announced the founding of the North Korean Republic (조선민주주의인민공화국 창건일) on September 9, 1948, and it has been celebrated since. The nine nine day is one of North Korea’s national holidays along with Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong Il’s birthdays.

A year ago, on September 9, North Korea performed its grand military parade at night but Kim Jong Un did not show up, and no new weapon systems were spotted. It was the 73rd anniversary of its foundation. There is more fanfare when the celebration year ends with 5 or 0 like the 70th anniversary in 2018. In the 9.9 parade, North Korea introduced new BTR-80 APC (amphibious armored personnel carriers) variants for the first time. These were Russian-made vehicles that had been adapted by North Korea to run on six wheels instead of eight. By doing so, its turn radius shortened, enhancing maneuverability in urban warfare. Also, on top of the vehicles, anti-tank rockets were added—either Chinese HJ-8 or 9M133 (불새-3) variants according to South Korean Intelligence.

Crushed Hope of CVID

This year was the 74th anniversary of North Korea; there was no military parade, only a celebration with Kim Jong Un. On the day, through KCNA (North Korean Central News Agency), Kim Jong Un chose to pressure Seoul and Washington in an unprecedented way by the enactment of a new law (핵무력 법제화) detailing nuclear arms use. From a provocative perspective, this was nothing physical and caused no known damage to Seoul and Washington but chronically precipitated psychological damage, and crushed the hope for Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID)/Final Fully Verifiable Denuclearization (FFVD) through dialogue. As many hawkish hardliners from Seoul and Washington had forewarned, Kim Jong Un is determined to continue building his nuclear arsenal.

What is interesting is the word ‘irreversible (불퇴, 不退, no return)’ in Kim’s speech. Kim Jong Un used this adjective in an opposite direction from our meaning of ‘irreversible dismantlement,’— he said, “here we draw a clear line of our irreversible nuclear power that this enactment for our nuclear weapon policy carries a deeper meaning (우리의 핵을 놓고 더는 흥정할 없게 불퇴의 그어놓은 여기에 핵무력 정책의 법화가 가지는 중대한 의의가 ).”

No wonder, the earthquake on the 10th in North Korea caused shivers among Korean watchers anticipating a 7th nuclear test but the South Korean Meteorological Administration (KMA) verified the tremors as a natural earthquake.

Despite North Korea’s refusal to negotiate on nuclear dismantlement, the South Korean government has announced that it will continue engaging with the North for denuclearization. The playbook remains the same though every administration says it is trying a different approach. Maybe, it is time for something more radical?

More to Come in September?

Recent satellite-detected images have affirmed infrastructure developments by the military—Sunchon Airforce base extended its runway up to 2800 meters, and a new suspicious underground construction site near the Workers Party of Korea Headquarter building in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un’s residence 15 (15호 관저) is only a few blocks away from the site. Both developments are aimed to enhance protective cover for the heart of Pyongyang.

Furthermore, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) detected that North Korea’s various missiles were ready in their erected positions on September 1. Beijing is also moving its military pawns to Taiwan during the Thanksgiving period.

Currently, one can expect more provocation from the North given the low 32% approval rating for South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol. President Yoon’s approval ratings dropped significantly following his refusal to meet U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August. So, indecisiveness on the part of Yoon could see a further drop in ratings. When President Yoon reacted in June by launching eight missiles in response to North Korea’s launch of eight missiles, the public strongly welcomed it because South Koreans are tired of ‘unidentified projectiles from the North’ and criticize the halt in ROK-US combined exercises by the Moon Jae-in administration. Though, it is questionable whether Yoon will continue such an eye-for-an-eye response after his ‘Audacious Initiative’ offered Pyongyang economic rewards for denuclearization.

The Typhoon Variable

Typhoon Hinamnor on September 6 was a new variable that might have interrupted pre-planned North Korean provocations in September. By September 8, more typhoons were in the offing. So, Kim Jong Un has to decide among the few time slots left in September for those already-erected missiles. There are enough important meetings between Seoul and Washington in September for North Korea to choose the right moment to leverage its voice through provocation.

September has always been a good time for North Korea to launch missiles due to the clear and high sky days. In 2021, it launched multiple missiles between September 11 and September 30. Obviously, the long-range cruise missile launched on September 11 in 2021 was interpreted as a message to Washington rather than Seoul at that time.

Recalling the 5th N-test on September 9 

In 2016, North Korea delivered its 5th nuclear test on September 9. It recorded an artificial magnitude of 5.04 which is equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT. If Kim Jong Un hits the button of the 7th nuclear test in September, it can ignite immense backlash from the South. Given the already-weakened mountains of the Korean Peninsula after heavy rainfall, any underground vibration from the North can trigger a natural earthquake or a landslide based on induced seismicity. If this happens, pro-North Korean factions in the South will be blamed for all. The recent earthquake from the North on the 10th manifested the possibility of such tremors. 

Tremors can also be created though tactical options like proxy and grey zone attacks on the South. Recently, there was an assassination attempt on North Korean escapee Park Sang Hak on August 15. Most western media did not cover the story. Park is the representative of an NGO that has been sending outside information—written leaflets and $1 bills—using balloons to North Korea for years. His actions have been supported by many human rights NGOs globally, namely, American human rights activist Suzanne Scholte. Park sent COVID medicines to the North on the September 5 despite the assassination attempt.

Park believed the attack is directed from Pyongyang after Kim Yo-jong’s speech blaming South Korean leaflets for spreading the COVID-19 virus. In her speech, she promised a proper retaliation, saying “we will respond by eradicating not only the virus but also the South Korean authorities.”

Global Context this September

As the Ukraine war and Taiwan issue deepens, Kim has to think twice about his action in the region because any wrong provocation can unintentionally exacerbate the situation.  

Putin’s ambition for the Ukraine war could be seen as the prelude for the bigger war in Far East Asia. Putin’s faux pas calculation can incite Kim Jong Un to lead the way for more troubles in Asia. Various news already confirmed North Korea’s weapons supply to Russia, which reflects the two countries’ tight nexus of brotherhood. Any provocation from Pyongyang in September could be a pivotal moment for decision-makers of the world. Seoul must appraise the entire North Korean provocation dynamics and think in a broader sense along with its allies and friends in the region to adduce countermeasures.