SEOUL — Saturday is the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and neighboring countries are bracing for the rogue country to celebrate in a classic North Korean way: by conducting a test of its nuclear and missile program.
Since earlier in the week, South Korean government officials had reported signs of another missile test in the works, possibly a long-range launch set for this weekend.
Then on Thursday, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon announced that the government expects North Korea to launch another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Sept. 9, saying the situation is “very grave.” The National Security Council met Thursday to discuss plans in case of a new missile test.
Like many countries, North Korea likes to celebrate independence or founding days with parades and proclamations, but Pyongyang likes to add dramatic gestures against imperialism, particularly ones that showcase its military might.
For example, in 2015, North Korea turned back its time zone by a half-hour, creating “Pyongyang Time” on its 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation. “The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land,” the official KCNA news agency said at the time.
North Korea’s neighboring countries have come to expect the isolated country to conduct regular exercises, particularly to celebrate the Day of the Sun in April, the birthday of its founding president. And on Sept. 9 last year, North Korea marked the anniversary of its founding with an underground nuclear test, saying it was building protection against “threats and sanctions.”
Kim Il Sung, the founding president of North Korea and the current leader’s grandfather, emerged as a leader under the Communist Party of Korea with the help of the Soviet Union after World War II, and established the Worker’s Party of North Korea in 1946.
Over the next two years, Kim formed the northern half of the Korean Peninsula into its own state, and by September 1948, had become the leader of the Supreme People’s Assembly. On Sept. 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established.
Fast forward 69 years. Predicting exactly what action the rogue nation will take on a given day is a futile exercise, but there’s anticipation building up to the weekend — particularly given South Korean intelligence on technical preparations leading up to another test.
The significance of another intercontinental ballistic missile test would be more political than practical, said Christopher Green, senior adviser for the Korean Peninsula at the International Crisis Group. There's another holiday around the corner — Oct. 10, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party — so it’s not imperative for Pyongyang to conduct a test on Sept. 9, he said.
Moreover, the shorter the space between each test, the less there is that North Korea’s scientists and technicians can learn from them and make improvements to their designs, he said.
“To the degree that North Korea knows that the international community is going to punish it for conducting its sixth nuclear test — or try to punish it, at any rate — there is no incentive not to do something else provocative on Sept. 9. If one is going to be punished for one’s actions anyway, why not go the whole hog?” Green said.
“On the other side of the coin, everyone now seems to expect North Korea to take a provocative step of some kind on Sept. 9, and it doesn’t serve Pyongyang’s interests to be too predictable in the short run. They may opt to wait,” Green added.
North Korea has been stepping up its nuclear and missile program significantly in recent months. In July, North Korea conducted two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that appeared capable of reaching the United States mainland.
The United Nations Security Council already has imposed sanctions, including on coal and seafood. Yet they have done little to alter North Korea's behavior; less than a week ago, Pyongyang conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date. This prompted South Korean President Moon Jae-in to push for even harsher sanctions, including cutting off the critical crude oil supply, but China and Russia — permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — have yet to come around to that particular idea.
“There’s been no diplomatic intervention to stop the continued testing, and the pace has been consistently fast,” said John Delury, associate professor of Chinese studies at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.
It remains unclear what the international community can do next. Meanwhile, North Korea issued a defiant statement Thursday: “We will reply to U.S. barbarian sanctions and pressure with our powerful countermeasures.”
“North Korea could be playing with us, looking like they’re moving stuff around just to keep people on edge,” Delury said. “If there’s nothing on the 9th, there will be a sigh of relief — but it’s sort of meaningless, because we’ve set this expectation.”
In Seoul, life is carrying on as normal. Delury’s advice to a certain WorldViews reporter trying to figure out whether she can make plans to see her grandmother in Seoul this weekend: “When it comes between your grandma and Kim Jong Un, you should pick your grandma.”