North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday said Pyongyang’s latest missile test was “an occasion to send an adequate warning” to the United States and South Korea over the joint military exercises that started this week.
With the test firing of what are presumed to be ballistic, short-range missiles into the sea on Tuesday, North Korea appears to be embarking on its own maximum pressure campaign — which, at best, is aimed at bringing the Trump administration back to the negotiating table, albeit with less stringent expectations.
The test came as Ju Yong Cho, the country’s envoy to the U.N.-backed Conference on Disarmament, accused the United Sates of “inciting military tension” with its joint military exercises with South Korea.
Seoul and Washington, said Ju, “can neither conceal nor whitewash” the “aggressive nature” of their military drills. He made no mention of North Korea’s recent missile tests, the nation’s fourth in the past two weeks.
Will North Korea’s strategy to pressure the United States to make good on its talk of negotiation and diplomacy pan out? And if not, what other options does the pariah state have?
“North Korea has until now raised tensions in a very calculated way, doing enough to put pressure on Washington but not crossing lines that could tank negotiations and prompt a negative response from the Trump administration,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat focusing on the Koreas.
“If the continuation of these exercises is truly a huge problem for North Korea, it can always raise the stakes and undertake higher-level provocations. But otherwise, North Korea will continue to pressure Washington by dragging its feet on negotiations and conducting lower-level tests,” he added.
Trump at one point, unilaterally promised to freeze the military drills, saying they were too expensive.
“Well, if you don’t exercise with your allies, then you don’t have an alliance — you have to train together to fight together,” said Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Whatever provocations he engages in, Kim will be careful not to. push the envelope too far, since, like President Donald Trump, he has what Oba calls “something of a personal stake in this diplomatic process.”
The need for a foreign policy win might be a factor in Trump’s public responses to Pyongyang’s provocations. He has continually downplayed missile tests and ignored inflammatory statements published in North Korean state media.
That, said Manning, is what is behind North Korea’s bold moves in testing weapons — not the military drills, which he said North Korea is just using as an excuse. Rather, the president is “too invested in this personal relationship, which hasn’t gotten us a whole lot and certainly won’t get us a denuclearized North Korea.”
Manning said. Trump’s version of strategic patience is actually leading him to “make a big mistake,” assuring Kim that as long as the status quo holds, he can continue developing his country’s weapons systems until at least the 2020 elections.
Ignoring Kim’s horrific human rights violations, Trump has described an exchange of messages with Kim as “beautiful letters” that led to the two men falling “in love.” He has complimented Kim as having “tremendous potential” and recently tweeted about the dictator’s “beautiful vision” for his country:
….Chariman Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his country, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true. He will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2019
Until now, the Trump administration has demanded something it calls “complete denuclearization” (though what that means hasn’t been clearly defined publicly) before it lifts the sanctions imposed on North Korea.
North Korea wants a more gradual and reciprocal process, scaling down some activities in exchange for some sanctions relief. So far, calls for that approach have found no purchase with Trump and his team.
The first summit between the U.S. president and the North Korean leader was held in Singapore in June 2018. Amid much pomp and circumstance, it yielded a brief, vague agreement that produced neither a concrete consensus nor a roadmap for how to proceed.
A second summit, held in Hanoi in February 2019, ended abruptly when U.S. negotiators refused to lift any sanctions in exchange for concessions from North Korea.
A third meeting held at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in June 2019 amounted to little more than a cordial chat that lasted a little less than an hour.
Citing its belief that Trump was reneging on an agreement to halt military drills with South Korea two-and-a-half weeks after the third meeting, North Korea hinted that it might resume nuclear testing.
The North Korean leader, while less prone to praising President Trump in any public measure, has used these summits to showcase his political acumen. After all, for a brief moment during that third meeting, President Trump actually set foot on North Korean soil.
In a way, North Korea is using the same hot-and-cold tactic as the Trump administration. For instance, Trump started out his relationship with Kim with a volley of threats and name-calling. Kim essentially mirrored Trump’s behavior.
As dialogue between the two countries moved along, U.S. negotiators refused to budge, even as Trump spoke of Kim in favorable terms. And North Korea, said Kim, has been applying pressure with continued testing demonstrating its “missile capabilities and its willingness to use them” as continuing to improve. When not firing missiles Kim uses a “charm offensive…designed to create a public narrative where North Korea is acting in good faith and the United States is the obstacle to diplomatic progress.”
But the fact is, things have come to a screeching halt, at least for now.
“I think they’re playing Trump for a fool,” said Manning. “He [Kim] realizes he can do most of what he wants without paying any price for it, and he wants to keep the hope alive for negotiations,” he added.
Like Kim, President Trump has largely used these summits as photo ops to advance his talking points and to show that he has made progress.
Despite the best efforts of U.S. North Korea Envoy Stephen Biegun, nailing down further negotiations with Pyongyang has proven to be difficult, Currently, what vestiges of negotiations remain are driven by Kim, Trump, and their cults of personality. The only noteworthy by-product of this process has been the manufacture of kitschy memorabilia.
Pyongyang has issued commemorative stamps of the first and third meeting (perhaps the second one was too disastrous to memorialize). The Trump administration created a coin in honor of the Singapore summit, but mistakenly referred to Kim as North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” which is actually the title of Iran’s leader.
No matter what kind of love or hate flows between Kim and Trump, it’s South Korea that rests directly in its neighbor’s line of fire. And while these short-range missiles don’t seem to trouble the U.S. president, who still tweets compliments to Kim, Seoul is less sanguine about these developments.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that South Korean chief national security adviser Chung Eui-yong held an emergency meeting to discuss the missile tests with the country’s defense minister and spy chief.
For now, South Korea is paying more for the military drills, as President Trump boasted on Wednesday. Seoul, meanwhile, continues to face the reality that it is directly within the path of the short-range missiles Pyongyang continues to test.