North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, like his US counterpart Donald Trump, seems to relish being unpredictable. When he’ll order the next missile launch or nuclear test, it seems, is anyone’s guess. But while the reasoning behind the timing of many tests does indeed seem unfathomable, in other cases it appears more clearly linked to happenings in the outside world. For instance, North Korea launched its second missile over Japan on Sept. 15, days after the United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions against it. It’s possible Pyongyang will do the same after future economic punishments are leveled against it. North Korea has also been known to conduct tests following military drills held by the US and South Korea.
Some other patterns emerge. Using these, it’s possible to make at least some educated guesses.
When detested leaders meet
Kim seems to relish grabbing attention during or around meetings between leaders he doesn’t like. For example, North Korea launched a missile in mid-February, while Donald Trump was getting to know Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the Mar-a-Lago country club in Florida. It launched another in April, just days before Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping met for the first time, also at the same resort.
With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine a circle on Kim’s calendar for November, when Trump plans to spend 10 days visiting leaders in the Asia-Pacific region. The US president said he intends to visit Japan, South Korea, and probably China on the trip. Since Pyongyang is unhappy with all those countries (and of course the US), any meetings involving their leaders and Trump could been seen as a good window. A Trump-Xi meeting would seem to be a particularly tempting time.
This week, world leaders will gather in New York for the annual General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly, from Sept. 19-25. That might prove a worthy hook for a launch.
During carefully planned gatherings in China
Chinese president Xi is no doubt fed up with the timing of North Korea’s weapons tests. Pyongyang’s latest and most powerful nuclear test occurred earlier this month just as Xi was about to deliver the opening remarks for the BRICS summit in southeast China. And in mid-May a missile launch took place just as Xi was about to inaugurate the Belt and Road Forum, a meeting centered around his signature trade initiative One Belt, One Road (OBOR).
Looking ahead, Xi will take part in what he probably considers the most important meeting of all: the 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party. At this twice-a-decade event, Xi looks to consolidate his power, with speculation rife that he aims to stay atop China’s political hierarchy until at least 2027. Since much is at stake for Xi and Beijing, Pyongyang could be tempted to interrupt the proceedings with an attention-grabbing weapons test of some sort. (Then again, maybe not: The congress is a domestic affair in China, and Kim seems to prefer international gatherings.)
While Americans enjoy time off
Two of the more notable weapons tests of late came while Americans enjoyed national holidays. North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 occurred during the three-day Labor Day weekend, and its second ICBM test—the one where it showed it could hit Alaska—cast a cloud over the US’s Independence Day on July 4.
Looking ahead to upcoming national holidays in the US, Oct. 9 is Columbus Day and lands on a Monday, making for a long weekend for many Americans. Veterans Day falls on Saturday, Nov. 11. Many will take four days off for Thanksgiving starting on Thursday, Nov. 23. Pyongyang might also see the days around Christmas (Dec. 25) or New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) as inviting launch windows.