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Forecast podcast: North Korea tensions flare in wake of drone flights and missile tests

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands in front of dozens of other men. All are in suits.

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Vivian Wang discuss rising tensions with North Korea following its recent drone incursions into South Korea, plus more on the North American Leaders Summit in Mexico City, Panama starting its census process, China reopening its borders and pension reform plans in France.

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These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors David Wyllie, Jaime Calle Moreno, Irene Villora, Sophie Perryer and Vivian Wang.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note:

Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.


Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is January 5th.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got the North American Leaders Summit in Mexico City, Panama starting its census, China reopening its borders, pension reform plans in France and a look at the escalating tensions with North Korea.  

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

Biden, Trudeau in Mexico

Information compiled by David Wyllie

JIMMY: U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be in Mexico City on Saturday. They’ll be attending the North American Leaders’ Summit, hosted by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Following the November 2021 meeting in Washington hosted by Biden, the summit’s regular schedule appears to have resumed after no summits were held during the Trump presidency. 

This will be the 10th trilateral summit since it was first convened in 2005.

Now, the three leaders are expected to discuss economic stability, jobs and immigration, with the United States and Mexico dealing with a surge in the number of migrants at the border. 

Biden is expected to lobby his Mexican counterpart to increase security at the border. 

Clean energy and supply chain issues will also likely be on the agenda, as the global economy continues to undergo volatility.

Panama starts census process

Information compiled by Jaime Calle Moreno

JIMMY:  After postponing its census in 2020 due to coronavirus, Panama will officially begin the process Sunday.

Following the postponement, no official date had been set to begin the two-month process until this last August. 

Months of planning have led to the appointment of 7,000 census takers, with more than 2,000 additional supervisors, for an estimated cost of almost $55 million

The time period to conduct the census will end March 24 and results are expected around October or November

Now, the long-awaited census brings with it some expectations. Specifically, that funding for developmental programs and future public policies will be thought out according to the general trends in population, economic growth and development that the country is undergoing. 

The Panamanian government has already announced plans to punish individuals who refuse to take part, with fines ranging from $10 to $1,000. Still, it’s not expected families will willingly choose not to participate. 

Finally, with more than 10 years since the last census, it’ll be a strong indication of where Panama is demographically after the pandemic and how it can continue growing.

China reopens borders, abandons quarantine measures

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: China will further ease its strict coronavirus restrictions on Sunday after almost three years since its “zero-Covid” policy came into effect.

Chinese officials announced the measure on Dec. 26 after a brief episode of anti-lockdown protests. 

The changes taking effect include dropping testing for inbound travelers and imported foods on arrival, and scrapping mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for the virus as well as tracing their close contacts. 

The limitation on international travel on airlines and mandatory quarantine for all travelers will also be lifted. 

Those entering the country will still need to provide a negative PCR test result taken no longer than 48 hours before their arrival in China. 

The measures will apply to Chinese nationals and foreigners with work or study permits.

Now, since the announcement, a number of western countries have announced mandatory testing for all travelers arriving from China. That, amid fears of renewed spreading in nations that have achieved significant containment of the virus. 

Western officials have raised concerns over the transparency of coronavirus data coming from China and about the resistance of Chinese leaders to immunize its population with foreign vaccines

Chinese officials claim this response is prejudiced and aimed at harming the country’s reputation.

France presents pension reform bill

Information compiled by Sophie Perryer

JIMMY: French President Emmanuel Macron will be giving an address Tuesday. He’ll present the latest version of his much-delayed plan to reform the country’s complex pensions system.

Unifying France’s 42 separate pension schemes into a single unified system was a key campaign pledge of Macron’s when he entered office in 2017. 

However, his first attempt to do so in December 2019 was met with months of mass protests and strike action led by France’s powerful unions.

In a New Year’s Eve speech, Macron signaled he would be prioritizing the issue in 2023, describing it as “the year of pension reform.”

Now, the initial reform plans had included an extension of the state pension age to 65, it’s currently 62, a proposal to which Macron appears committed despite its unpopularity. 

Unions and political opponents have already signaled their discontent. 

They’re raising concerns over further strike action and protests at a fragile time for France’s economy given the energy crisis. 

After Tuesday’s announcement, parliamentarians will debate the legislation, as the government intends to implement the reforms by the end of summer.

North Korea tensions

Information compiled by Vivian Wang

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on the escalation of tensions with North Korea. For more on that I spoke with fellow editor Vivian Wang.

JIMMY: Hello, Vivian. 

VIVIAN: Hey, Jimmy.

JIMMY: You know Vivian it was just about a year ago that you were featured on the podcast we titled “North Korea’s recent missile launches pose new challenges for missile defense systems.” I feel like we could just add the word ‘drone’ in there and it would work for this episode too. What in the world is going on? Was there zero progress in 2022?    

VIVIAN: Yeah, 2022 was a big year for North Korea – I feel like every time I came onto the podcast it was to talk about another unprecedented number of missile launches or the first time something big, like an intercontinental ballistic missile, had been test fired from North Korea for the first time in half a decade. So yeah, from North Korea’s perspective, they’ve made a lot of progress in 2022 developing and testing their weapons systems – but from an anti-proliferation standpoint? Definitely zero if not negative progress on the Korean peninsula – tensions are higher than they have been for a long time.

JIMMY: And now with drones?

VIVIAN: Yep, now drones. Right after Christmas, South Korea detected five drones from North Korea crossing the border into their airspace – one even made it as far as northern Seoul. It seemed like South Korea was taken totally off guard – this was the first time a North Korean drone had crossed the border into the South since 2017 – and even though they scrambled fighter jets and attack helicopters, and fired some 100 warning shots, they did not manage to shoot any of them down – one of them made it back across the border to North Korea even, and four just disappeared from radar altogether.

JIMMY: Did North Korea acknowledge or explain the drone flights?  

VIVIAN: Nope, not a word from North Korean state media on the drones specifically since the incident, though they’ve mentioned other test launches.

JIMMY: Have those drone flights taken the place of missile launches then?

VIVIAN: Oh, I don’t think that’s the case. North Korea loves their missiles – they’re an important part of their weapons program – and they’ve kept up testing even into the New Year. They launched three short-range ballistic missiles on New Year’s Eve, and then rang in 2023 with another launch on New Year’s Day. State media said they were performance tests for a “super-large” multiple rocket launch system.

JIMMY: What have the reactions been to these recent drone and missile launches?

VIVIAN: Well, the drone incursion in particular has caused quite a bit of turmoil in South Korea – the military made an official apology for failing to shoot down the drones. They’re definitely on edge now – they scrambled fighter jets after detecting what they thought might be North Korean drones near the border, and then it turned out to be a flock of birds. And the president, Yoon Suk Yeol, has been making all sorts of statements – he berated the defense minister for the botched response, he’s calling for strengthening their air defenses and domestic drone program, and most recently he said he’d consider suspending a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement if the North violated the South’s airspace again, which would be a pretty big deal – that agreement was meant to ease tensions by establishing buffer zones between the two countries. 

But also, interestingly, there seems to be a bit of disconnect in the communication between the US and South Korea on this – President Yoon said that South Korea and the US are in talks for “joint nuclear exercises,” but the US side has denied this, and that they’re only in talks for table-top drills that may include scenarios like nuclear use from North Korea. So, South Korea then doubled down and said they’re in talks over information-sharing and joint planning regarding US nuclear assets. At this point it’s hard to tell what anyone’s actually talking about – there just doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus between the two allies on this particular issue.

JIMMY: Well, I guess in addition to clarity, like I always ask, what should folks be watching out for next?

VIVIAN: Well, we’re already looking at more resolute rhetoric from Kim in North Korea – he’s called for an “exponential increase” in nuclear weapons, new ICBMS, launching a spy satellite, and he’s labeled South Korea a clear, or undoubted enemy. So I don’t think we’ll see weapons tests slow down in the new year. We could see them take new forms, like the drone incursion. And as always we’re on the watch for a potential nuclear weapons test. So, tensions are likely to keep rising as North Korea pushes their weapons development program and South Korea’s current conservative presidential administration maintains its hard line on North Korea. 

JIMMY: Well, I think we’ll leave it there for today, Vivian. I suspect, however, this won’t be the last time we talk about the Korean peninsula, but you know in the meantime, thanks for getting us up to speed. 

VIVIAN: Thanks as always for having me on, Jimmy.

JIMMY: Take care.

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors David Wyllie, Jaime Calle Moreno, Irene Villora and Sophie Perryer. Our interview featured editor Vivian Wang and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2023 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang to celebrate the New Year. (Photo: KCNA)

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