Analysts: North Korea’s latest round of saber rattling viewed as posturing for aid
Although North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been on a warmongering tear in the past month, his activities are likely just the latest salvos from his negotiation arsenal, analysts contend. Foremost, Kim seeks relief from international economic sanctions and to retain his nuclear weapons, which he likely views as his top bargaining chip, they said.
Kim’s latest provocations include resuming production of weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear bombs, September 11 and 12, 2021, testing of a new long-range cruise missile that traveled 1,500 kilometers and the September 16 testing of a missile that can launch from a train and carry an atomic warhead, according to news and security agency reports. (Pictured: People in Seoul, South Korea, watch a TV showing a file satellite image of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility August 30, 2021. Recent satellite images indicate that North Korea resumed producing weapons fuels at the plant and also is expanding uranium enrichment operations at the complex.)
Perhaps the most concerning act of aggression, however, occurred September 15, 2021, when North Korea launched two rounds of short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, according to NBC News.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga condemned the missile launch as “simply outrageous” and said it was a “threat to the peace and security” of the region. “It is in violation of [the] U.N. Security Council resolution, and I strongly protest and condemn this,” he said. “We will work closely with the U.S., South Korea and other concerned nations to resolutely protect the lives of our citizens and their peaceful lives,” Suga said, according to CNBC.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) called North Korea’s activities a risk to the region and beyond and pledged to work with allies and partner nations to continue monitoring the situation.
Until the ballistic missile tests September 15, North Korea had upheld its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests for more than three years. Although Kim agreed to work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula at a summit in early 2019 with then-U.S. President Donald Trump, negotiations have not progressed since a second summit that year in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended abruptly, Reuters reported. Diplomatic talks between North and South Korea have also stalled in recent months.
Kim’s latest testing activities are mainly intended “for developing military capabilities but can also be attempts at shoring up domestic unity,” Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea, told The Associated Press (AP). “Pyongyang could launch a provocation even when in desperate economic need because it wants to hide its weaknesses and extract external concessions.”
The tests may be backfiring on the homefront, however, as citizens are frustrated with spending on national defense displays, such as missile tests and parades, when people are starving, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA).
“The people are so antipathetic, asking how the authorities can do such things as if they don’t know that many of us here are starving because of this economic crisis,” a resident of Hamhung, North Korea, told RFA. Moreover, missiles are useless if the military can’t feed its soldiers, the source said.
Kim may be using missile launches and threats to secure aid.
“The COVID-19 pandemic, self-imposed isolation and lockdowns, crop failures, sanctions and more have put the economy in a parlous state, a fact acknowledged by Kim Jong Un himself,” according to a February 2021 Brookings Institution report. “The state planning mechanism seems broken, foreign exchange holdings are down, state revenue is shrinking, foreign trade numbers have collapsed, and growth is declining,” said the report, titled “North Korea’s economic crisis: Last chance for denuclearization?”
The tests also came within weeks of a series of meetings on North Korea among various combinations of Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, and U.S. officials in Tokyo and Seoul. U.S. Special Representative to North Korea Sung Kim said after discussions with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts that the U.S. is willing to cooperate with Pyongyang on humanitarian concerns “regardless of progress on denuclearization,” South Korean news agency Yonhapreported.
“It bears further watching on how things go, but it’s possible that we are near another phase in (North Korean) brinkmanship,” Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, told AP.
In the meantime, the U.S. and its allies and partners remain prepared to respond to North Korea with military overmatch. “The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad,” USINDOPACOM said in a statement after the North’s long-range missile test. The U.S. maintains about 80,000 troops throughout South Korea and Japan.
Within hours of North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, South Korea became the seventh nation to create an indigenous submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) after it successfully conducted an underwater launch of its technology, Yonhap reported. It’s a capability North Korea has not achieved despite its claims, analysts said.
“Possessing SLBM is very meaningful in terms of securing deterrence against omnidirectional threats, and it is expected to play a big role in self-reliant national defense and establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula going forward,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office said.
South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development also successfully developed and tested an aerial missile launch technology, an essential element for fighter jet armament, Moon’s office said.
Meanwhile, Australia will acquire a nuclear powered submarines as part of a new partnership deal with the U.S. and the United Kingdom, which should also enhance deterrence in the region.
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS