U.S. Spy Plane Watches North Korea as Kim Prepares for Major Summit

A U.S. reconnaissance plane flew near North Korea Tuesday as Washington, D.C., watches for any indication of Kim Jong Un's next moves ahead of a major regime summit and President-Elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

A U.S. Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft flew over the southern coast of South Korea and then above the country's central regions on Tuesday morning, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

The aircraft flew from the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. This type of plane specializes in detecting telemetry signals before missile launches, Yonhap said.

These planes are also used to analyze and predict the trajectory of missiles and accompanying warheads. The U.S. tracks North Korea missile launches as part of its regional defense operations.

There has been speculation that Kim may order a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in the coming months to apply pressure on the incoming Biden administration and press Pyongyang's demand for sanctions relief.

The North has maintained a moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests since 2017, amid a surprise detente with President Donald Trump's administration.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies said in a report published this week that Kim "will consider playing the card of an ICBM launch in a desperate measure to break the deadlock" with the U.S. Sanctions and denuclearization relief talks have been stalled under Trump, despite grand promises from both leaders.

"Biden's formation of his foreign policy lineup and basic policy approach suggest that it is clear the administration will make a 180-degree turn to the bottom-up method based on working-level meetings, as opposed to the top-down method," the Asan Institute report said.

Speculation is rife ahead of next month's 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, the first such gathering in five years at which Kim will set out his priorities and vision for the coming years.

The summit is usually held in spring, but this year will coincide with Biden's inauguration. This will give Kim the opportunity to set a belligerent or cooperative tone for his relations with the next administration.

An unnamed South Korean military official told Yonhap: "The U.S. is paying close attention to North Korea's movements, including preparations for a (possible) military parade for the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in January." The official added: "The U.S. military will likely conduct more frequent surveillance flights around the date of the congress."

Biden has signalled he will take a tougher stance on North Korea than Trump. His administration will likely focus on lower level talks rather than the headline-grabbing leaders meetings that characterized Trump's approach to North Korea.

Biden was part of President Barack Obama's team that pursued "strategic patience" with North Korea, waiting and hoping—ultimately in vain—that sanctions would force Pyongyang to end its nuclear program. Obama was widely criticized for this strategy given its failure.

Biden will come to power having branded Kim a "thug" and telling voters that the "days of cozying up to dictators are over."

Pyongyang, meanwhile, has long expressed its disdain for Biden. Last year, the regime called the then-presidential candidate a "rabid dog" that needed to be "beaten to death with a stick."

Kim Jong Un speaks on Seoul television
People watch a television news broadcast of a speech by North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on October 10. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty