SEOUL, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- North Korea could come to a fork in the road in 2016 and may need to decide between its nuclear weapons program and economic development – but Pyongyang also could step up proliferation if Kim Jong Un cannot find an "exit strategy."
The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a South Korean think tank, stated in its 2016 forecast that North Korea's dilemma could be amplified by a "serious" food shortage owing to a recent drought, the Korea Herald reported.
"As the side effect of the serious droughts, there may be a severe food shortage and a variety of social problems [arising from the crisis]," the institute said in its annual report.
The food crisis is serious, and a second famine cannot be ruled out, the report read, referring to a catastrophic food shortage in the mid-90s that killed 2 million North Koreans, according to U.N. estimates.
The North Korean regime is expected to launch economic reforms involving five-year plans in May 2016, when the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party convenes in more than two decades.
But North Korea's policy of developing nuclear weapons is not compatible with badly needed reforms.
To meet the demands of its competing policies, North Korea could devise a strategy that would leave the international community with no choice but to recognize it as a nuclear state, said Cha Doo-hyun of the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Speaking at a seminar at the Asan Institute, Cha said Kim would be under pressure in 2016 to keep touting the country's nuclear weapons program as a major accomplishment while opting for less expensive nuclear tests – before declaring a moratorium on all tests. The North could conduct at least two nuclear tests or use uranium enrichment in nuclear manufacturing technology to grip the attention of the international community.
But North Korea also could engage in a "peace offensive" with the United States and South Korea before the Seventh Party Congress, when economic reforms are to be announced, in hopes of gaining concessions, or even take advantage of fissures among member nations of the six-party talks. In the absence of a breakthrough, Pyongyang would only step up proliferation.
North Korea's economic landscape is changing rapidly – it is now estimated there are about 750 gray markets in the country.