North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the country might resume nuclear and missile tests in response to the United States’ scheduled military drills with South Korea this summer.
The statement published on the official Korean Central News Agency pointed to President Donald Trump’s promise to halt the military exercises in two of the three meetings he’s held with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the past year. The large-scale exercises were postponed, but smaller drills remain on the schedule for this summer.
“The suspension of joint military exercises is what President Trump, commander-in-chief of the U.S., personally committed to at the DPRK-U.S. [June 2018] summit talks in Singapore under the eyes of the whole world and reaffirmed at the DPRK-U.S. summit meeting in Panmunjom [June 20-19], where our Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State were also present,” read the statement, referring to North Korea by the abbreviation of its full name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Our discontinuation of the nuclear and ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] tests and the U.S. suspension of joint military exercises are, to all its intents and purposes, commitments made to improve bilateral relations. … Less than a month now since the DPRK-U.S. summit meeting in Panmunjom, the U.S. is going to resume joint military exercise which it directly committed to suspend at the highest level. This is clearly a breach of the main spirit of June 12 DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement and an undisguised pressure upon us,” it continued, ending with “We are viewing this matter with vigilance.”
Another statement released later in the day indicated that Pyongyang would take a wait-and-see approach before making any decisions.
“We’ve seen this progression over time — there’s agreements going on that say that there’s not going to be hostility. But there’s questions on the North Korean side about why the South Koreans … would keep building up arms and building up capabilities,” said Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, a Stimson Center project focused on North Korean security, economy, and social issues.
“And on the U.S. side, there’s a lot of questions because there’s still no [formal] agreement in place. North Korea did some unilateral measures, but the U.S. hasn’t really reciprocated, other than suspending large-scale military exercises,” Town told ThinkProgress, referring to Pyongyang’s suspension of tests and the dismantling of an old test site.
If anything, the Trump administration has maintained its campaign of “maximum pressure” and continues to impose harsh sanctions on North Korea.
Pyongyang sees these drills as an existential threat, or as Tuesday’s earlier statement put it, “a rehearsal of war aimed at militarily occupying” North Korea. Trump surprised Seoul when in June 2018, after his first meeting with Kim in Singapore, he announced on live television that the U.S. would suspend military exercises with South Korea.
Now, North Korea might end its 22-month suspension of nuclear tests, despite the fact that doing so would not only agitate the U.S. and South Korea, but also China, which is also North Korea’s neighbor and largest trading partner.
According to the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, the last test North Korea carried out in September 2017 had an explosive yield 16 times stronger than the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in World War II, and 10 times stronger that previous North Korean tests.
The statement creates further uncertainty about the future of negotiations between the United States and North Korea, which have been broken since the February summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
That summit, the second between Trump and Kim, ended abruptly after Trump refused to lift any of the sanctions placed on Pyongyang over the nuclear and ballistic missile programs until Kim delivered what the U.S. has termed (but failed to define) as “complete denuclearization.”
In June, President Trump paid a surprise visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea, hoping to jumpstart the process again. He met with Kim for roughly an hour, and even briefly set foot on North Korean soil.
Trump has not yet responded to North Korea’s statement. His last tweets on North Korea followed his June meeting with Kim, when he said the North Korean leader “looked very well and healthy” and that their teams would be working on “solutions.”
But there were signs of trouble by early July, when the North Korean mission to the United Nations accused the United States of being “more and more hell-bent hostile acts,” against Pyongyang.
“It is quite ridiculous for the United States to continue to behave obsessed with sanctions and pressure campaign against the DPRK, considering sanctions as a panacea for all problems,” read the statement.
That same week, the U.S military acknowledged in its 2019 Strategic Digest what was long known by experts: That North Korea’s Hwasong-15 missiles are capable of striking any target in the United States. While the missile is designed to carry a nuclear warhead, it remains unclear if North Korea has been able to mount a nuclear warhead on it.
Fresh tests might provide Pyongyang with the opportunity to figure that out.
“We want to prevent them from further testing,” said Town, emphasizing that the Hwasong-15 has only been tested once. Still, time is of the essence.
“North Korea’s capabilities have not changed… no part of the program has stopped because there is no agreement in place yet,” she added. “So yes, they have stopped the nuclear testing, and they destroyed a nuclear test site, but they can certainly build a new one.”