Analysis, Foreign Affairs, Military, Nuclear Weapons

DPRK Provocations Likely Around U.S. Presidential Election

Beyond Parallel conducted a new study looking at whether there are patterns to North Korean behavior around U.S. elections. The proposition we sought to test is whether there is truth to the narrative often found in the media and expert analysis that the North uses provocations to capture the attention of the United States. And if so, do the North Koreans have something in the works for the U.S. presidential election on November 8, 2016?

Beyond Parallel created a dataset of U.S. election events, incorporating both presidential and congressional midterm election years, and cross-tabulated this information with our original dataset on North Korean provocations over the same period. This dataset comparison allowed us to evaluate how close (in number of days or weeks) the North Korean provocations occurred in relation to U.S. elections. This study is one of the first to examine whether there is any correlation between U.S. elections and North Korean provocations.

Over the course of 30 elections since 1956, Beyond Parallel measured the “provocation window”— defined as the period of time before or after an election in which a North Korean provocation happens.

Key Findings

  • The provocation window has grown more narrow over time. That is, North Korean missile/nuclear tests and other major kinetic provocations have clustered increasingly closer to U.S. elections.
  • Under Kim Jong-un, the average window for a North Korean provocation bracketed around all U.S. national elections (i.e., before or after) is 3.5 weeks.
  • This represents a more focused window than in previous periods: During Kim Jong-il’s regime, the window was an average of 10 weeks, and during Kim Il-sung’s rule, the average was 14.5 weeks.
  • This pattern suggests a provocation as early as one month before the U.S. presidential election in the first week of October, which also coincides with North Korea’s Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Foundation Day (October 10 KST/October 9 EST); or during the transition period for the next administration (starting in December).

North Korean Provocations and U.S. Elections (1990-2016)

Beyond Parallel created a dataset of U.S. election events, incorporating both presidential and congressional midterm election years, and cross-tabulated this information with our original dataset on North Korean provocations over the same period. The graph below illustrates how close (in number of days or weeks) North Korean provocations have occurred in relation to U.S. elections. This is one of the first studies to look at whether there are patterns to North Korean behavior around U.S. elections. Graphical data from 1956-1989 will be forthcoming.


On use of graph note following:

  • The red line represents the day of the election. Points above and below the redline represent North Korean provocations before and after an election.
  • When a user hovers on a particular point they can view the amount of days before or after an election and the specific date and type of provocation.
  • Viewers can zoom into a particular point in time by clicking the left mouse button and dragging their mouse across the graph. A specific window of data can also be downloaded.
  • Users can also toggle between congressional and presidential datasets. To do this click on the specific type of election at the bottom of graph.

Other Findings

  • There is a step change in the provocation window after Kim Il-sung’s death. In the first 40 years of the study, the provocations window hovered around 13 to 16 weeks (when looking at solely at the average of all national elections every two years). In the last 20 years, the window has narrowed to between 4 to 6 weeks.
  • One anomaly is the relatively hostile period of 1965 to 1975, when North Korea greeted U.S. elections with a surprisingly short provocation window of 8.4-days, or a little more than one week.
  • There are three instances in the past where North Korea had welcomed U.S. elections with a provocation on the same day—the 1978 midterm election, the 1980 presidential election, and the 1996 presidential election.

North Korea Provocations and U.S. Elections since 1956

Kim Il-sung

Under Kim il-Sung

Window for presidential elections = 116 days / 16.5 weeks

Window for mid-term congressional elections = 87 days / 12 weeks

Total average = 103 days / 14.5 weeks

Number of elections = 19

Kim Jong-il

Under Kim Jong-il

Window for presidential elections = 109 days / 15 weeks

Window for mid-term congressional elections = 43 days / 6 weeks

Total average = 72 days / 10 weeks

Number of elections = 9

Kim Jong-un

Under Kim Jong-un

Window for presidential elections = 27.5 days / 4 weeks

Window for mid-term congressional elections = 16 days / 2 weeks

Total average = 24 days / 3.5 weeks

Number of elections = 2

Additional considerations

  • Sample size: The sample size for the Kim Jong-un period is small (one presidential and one mid-term congressional election).
  • Provocation: We define a provocation as an intentional military action by North Korea that breaches the sovereignty of a third country such as the South Korea or the United States, causes personal injury or damage to property, and/or constitutes a serious violation of international law for the attainment of specific military, political, or diplomatic objectives. Outside of the terms of this definition, and for the purposes of this study, we do not assign a numeric metric that is determinate of the intensity of each individual provocation.
  • Correlation only: Our study indicates a pattern in North Korean provocations around U.S. elections. We do not suggest that elections cause the provocations. Our findings also do not deny that there may be multiple causes for the timing of North Korean actions, including scientific/military variables as well as domestic-political ones.
  • Averages: The calculations for the average provocation window for each leader have been revised as of April 2017 to reflect updates in the database. The averages have also been rounded to facilitate the absorption of information by the reader.