Will North Korea Test an ICBM in 2021? + The Future of Europe's Vaccination Effort
Metaculus Mondays Security and War Public Health

Will North Korea Test an ICBM in 2021? + The Future of Europe's Vaccination Effort

Clay Graubard
Andrew Eaddy
Clay Graubard, Andrew Eaddy

In this week's volume of Metaculus Mondays, we are leaving the Middle East and focusing on Asia and Europe, forecasting:

  1. Whether North Korea will test an ICBM before 2022;
  2. How many COVID-19 vaccine doses the European Union will administer throughout 2021.

North Korea ICBM Test

On the latest episode of the Global Guessing Weekly Podcast we did a live forecast on a question from Metaculus about the likelihood that North Korea launches an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) before 2022.

Clip from episode 2 of GGWP where we make a live forecast on whether North Korea will test an ICBM before 2022.

The question resolves positively if North Korea launches a missile with a range of more than 5,500 km that is capable of hosting a nuclear warhead before 2022. The launch does not have to be successful, “any confirmed launch will suffice.” In general, we feel this is a fairly well constructed question. There is some slight ambiguity if any missile launch with a potential range of 5,500 km+ will satisfy the question or whether the missile has to be an ICBM (in which case a submarine launched ballistic missile or SLBM would not qualify for positive resolution).

On the podcast, we forecasted that there is a 60% chance that North Korea launches an ICBM this year (versus a community median of 70%). This percentage was derived from our analysis of North Korea’s track record of missile tests over the past few years, as well as our understanding of Kim Jong-un’s potential behavior patterns given the new United States administration. We also felt that the community was being slightly too bullish and wanted to err on the lower-side of their forecast.

Picture showing the community forecasts on Metaculus, showing a clustering around the 70% likelihood that North Korea tests an ICBM or intercontinental ballistic missile before 2022.

Since that forecast we have conducted further research into the question at hand and are updating our forecast as a result. Again, at Global Guessing we strongly advocate for continuous prediction updates as new information arises, so as to constantly check our rationale and viewpoints as contexts shift.

One factor that we are now considering in our forecast is the fact that while North Korea claimed to be ending their nuclear testing moratorium at the end of 2019, no tests occurred in 2020 (North Korea only tested one, short-range missile), ostensibly a product of Covid-19 related delays. Whatever factors delayed testing in 2020 for North Korea may still very well be in effect now, making a test this year equally unlikely.

Table showing the number of Total Missile Tests, ICBM Tests, and Nuclear Tests North Korea conducted between 2012 and 2012. For each year, the numbers will be given in that order: total missile tests, ICBM tests, and nuclear tests. For 2012: 2, 0, 0. For 2013: 4, 0, 1. For 2014: 5, 0, 0. For 2015: 1, 0, 0. For 2016: 5, 1, 2 (but the one ICBM test was a satellite). For 2017: 16, 4, 1. For 2018: 0, 0, 0. For 2019: 10, 0, 0. And for 2020: 1, 0, 0. As noted in the description of this image, the data becomes much more granular starting in 2016 so accuracy of data is better in more recent years.
*Test was a satellite launch that was capable of being an ICBM test; **Starting in 2016, data on tests becomes much more granular and accurate.

Secondly are economic constraints. As a communist country, North Korea has often sacrificed economic growth for control. More specifically, economic development has often fallen by the wayside in favor of investing in the country’s military. In fact, in 2016, North Korea spent ~$4 billion on defense spending, the year preceding their more prolific testing period, roughly 24% of their GDP.

  • By comparison, the United States spends 3.4% of GDP on military spending each year.

This is to say that North Korea’s economic development has struggled, made more challenging by the Covid-19 pandemic which has seen the country shut its proverbial doors to observations from the outside world. Furthermore ICBM tests are expensive. It’s possible, albeit less likely than true, that Kim Jong-un paraded the impressive Hwasong-16 through North Korea in 2020 so that he could garner more popular support within the country while not having to actually test the missile, risking both monetary losses and potential international embarrassment.  

Finally, North Korea’s relationship with China is potentially an important factor for this prediction. In Marko Papic’s Geopolitical Alpha, Papic writes about China’s efforts to avoid falling victim to the ‘middle-income trap’. In support of this, he predicts that “China’s middle class will force China away from geopolitical excitement. It will retreat inward and back off from its competition with the US” (pp. 100-101). If this is China’s intended orientation towards the United States in the near term, an offensive move such as an ICBM test from North Korea would result in significant conflict. And as Covid-19 has already wreaked havoc on North Korea’s trade volume with its largest export partner China, further conflict between the two nations could really hurt North Korea economically.

While directionally we know that our initial forecast of 60% was too high, a number of factors including those discussed above make coming to an accurate forecast difficult. Here are some other factors we are considering when thinking about this question.

Pros

  • North Korea unveiled a massive new ballistic missile, Hwasong-16, at an October 2020 military parade.
  • North Korea has stated that it remains committed to further nuclear development.
  • A potential con, however, is that development is behind schedule, including munitions creation.
  • Trump demonstrated a penchant for negotiating with North Korea and Kim Jong-un. With him no longer in power, North Korea may seek to remain in the geopolitical spotlight through extreme action.
  • China might be more willing to continue backing North Korea as an extension of the country’s ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ approach.

Neutral factors

  • The Hwasong -14 and -15 ICMBs were shown in similar quality mock-ups to the Hwasong-16 in October 2015. The Hwasong -14 and -15 were tested in mid 2017 after further revisions were made. Therefore, it is likely tests could start at the end of 2021 or into early / mid 2022. Potentially longer due to COVID-19 effects (North Korea only tested 1 missile in 2020).

Cons

  • A submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test from North Korea would not possess enough range (~3000 km) to satisfy the resolution.
  • In a North Korean military parade on January 14, 2021, no ICBMs were shown.
  • Due to economic conditions, North Korea could be potentially very vulnerable to sanctions (and thus would not want to risk triggering new ones with a new test).
  • Superforecaster Carolyn Meinel gave 5% likelihood of a North Korean ICBM missile test between Nov 3 and March 1 if Biden were elected (3% if Trump were re-elected). If you were to linearly extrapolate her likelihood to rest of 2021, the chances would be 12.5%.

Given the base-rate of missile-reveal-to-test time plus other factors mentioned above, we believe it is more likely for North Korea to test an ICBM in 2022 than 2021. Nevertheless, our analysis indicates it is still possible for a North Korean test this year.

As a result, we revise our forecast and find there is a 33% chance North Korea will test an ICBM before 2022–making it unlikely.

EU's COVID Vaccination Future

Finally, we want to conclude this week’s volume of Metaculus Monday by turning our attention to the European Union’s COVID Vaccination Effort. We are concerned with these three Metaculus questions which ask “How many doses of any COVID19 vaccine will have been administered in the EU” as of:

  1. April 1, 2021
  2. July 1, 2021
  3. October 1, 2021 (also Clay’s birthday!) <3

The current median community forecasts are:

  • April 1: 62.7M (67 predictions)
  • July 1: 178M (14 predictions)
  • October 1: 364M (26 predictions)

Based on these projections and the past rate of EU vaccinations (10.28M on 1/26, 32.05M on 2/26), the Metaculus community does not foresee any noticeable improvements in the rate of vaccinations within the EU until after April and with most improvements taking place after July.

In fact, the Metaculus median forecast indicates that the European Union will not match the United States’ vaccination rate between 1/27 and 2/27 in terms of doses as a share of total population until after July (0.0046935 for the US in Feb, 0.004544051 for the EU between July and October).

Therefore, our initial thoughts are either:

  1. The European Union’s vaccination campaign is cursed and will continue to be so.
  2. The Metaculus Community is being (at least to some degree) overly bearish on the EU’s vaccination campaign.

Although there is certainly merit to a generally bearish case for any EU program, the degree to which the Metaculus community is bearish seems too extreme in our analysis.

Other Bullish Indicators

  • According to S&P Global, the EU should receive ~50m doses between February and March.
  • The European Commission President von der Leyen recently revealed the EU will have access to 100M doses by end of March and 400M (total) by June.
  • Nearly all vaccines the EU has ordered are two-dose vaccines.
Table showing the different vaccines the EU has ordered and is in talks for ordering. The vast majority are two shot vaccines.

Bearish Indicators

  • The EU’s vaccination campaign has continued to lag behind the United States and United Kingdom.
  • The EU still has a short-term short-fall of AstraZeneca doses.
  • There has been a lot of vaccine waste so far in some European countries due to vaccine preference, such as Germany where last week only 187,000 of the 1.5 million available AstraZeneca doses had been used.

April Projection

We forecast the European Union will administer between 65M and 86M doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by April 1, 2021, with a median number of 75M doses.

Rationale

  • Projected number of doses available in EU by end of March.
  • Estimated amount of wasted vaccines.

July Projection

We forecast the European Union will administer between 190M and 324M doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 1, 2021, with a median number of 249M doses.

Rationale

  • Introduction of new vaccines (including one-shot vaccines).
  • Possibility of new vaccine production deals being reached.
  • Increasing vaccine buy-in by populace.

October Projection

We forecast the European Union will administer between 341M and 538M (hi Nate!) doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by October 1, 2021, with a median of 440M doses.

Rationale

  • If 80% of the adult population received their doses, half were one dose, half were two doses, that would equal 535M people.
  • Chance booster shots for variants for first vaccinated population are released.
  • Fair likelihood a large percentage of the remaining population gets a 1 dose vaccine.

Since the last two forecasts will remain open for a while longer, we intend to revisit these questions as we learn more and more information comes out about the EU's vaccination efforts.


Be sure to tune in next time as we will likely update a prediction from either this or a previous volume of Metaculus Mondays! And if you have any suggestions for questions we should answer, feel free to contact us on the website or any of our social media channels. Until next time!