Why outlook for North Korea denuclearization remains grim

May 15, 2019 18:31
Amid the impasse, North Korea may decide to test-fire medium-range and long-range ballistic missiles, or even resume nuclear testing. Photo: Reuters

North Korea test-fired another two short-range missiles last Thursday, the second time within six days.

Although the missiles which Pyongyang launched didn’t fly over the territories of any of its neighboring countries or constitute any direct military threat, the message is indeed clear: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is apparently getting increasingly impatient with the deadlock over his country’s denuclearization talks with the United States.

The fact that the latest missile test-firing took place right at a time when US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun was visiting South Korea also indicates that Pyongyang is determined to pile pressure on Washington in order to force the issue over the US-North Korea talks.

The stakes are undoubtedly high here: if Washington and Pyongyang fail to contain the crisis and prevent tensions from further intensifying, chances are, Kim may decide to escalate his action shortly by test-firing medium-range and long-range ballistic missiles, or even resuming nuclear testing.

If that worst-case scenario happens, the regional stability in the Korean Peninsula over the past year or so will definitely fall apart overnight.

US-North Korea relations appear to have ground to a standstill ever since the second summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim in Hanoi back in February this year failed to bear any fruit, with high-level dialogue between the two governments almost completely halted.

At one point, North Korean state media even publicly criticized US State Secretary Mike Pompeo for being "reckless" and immature, and obstructing the negotiation process.

While it's uncertain whether such criticism was directed at Pompeo or actually at Trump himself, Kim is apparently frustrated or probably even angry at the current state of affairs.

Despite the two summits with Trump and his multiple talks with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in since early 2018, not to mention the fact that he has suspended the test-firing of long-range missiles and nuclear tests, Kim found that he didn’t get repaid for his goodwill gestures, with US economic sanctions having shown no sign of relenting at all.

Worse still, the US has recently seized, for the first time, a North Korean cargo ship which has allegedly violated the international embargo against Pyongyang.

Given all that, one can hardly rule out the possibility that the young and fiery Kim might once again become the “rocket man” amid the ongoing impasse with the US, and flex his military muscles in order to force both Washington and Seoul to take his demands more seriously.

Over the past year, Trump has continued to boast about his diplomatic “achievements” in facilitating the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and suspending the test-launch of long-range missiles, which he claimed none of his predecessors was able to accomplish.

However, the latest test-launching of missiles by Pyongyang is not only tantamount to a terrible slap in the face for Trump, and may also undermine his record on foreign policy or even ruin his chances of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Obviously, Trump is also well aware that things over the Korean Peninsula haven’t gone quite as planned.

And that probably explains why the US president, rather than bawling out like he always did before, only responded to Pyongyang’s latest missile launching very moderately (“Nobody’s happy about it but we’re taking a good look and we’ll see"), perhaps in order not to further provoke Kim.

In fact, we believe the underlying cause for the US-North Korea gridlock over denuclearization is that while Trump insists that Pyongyang must destroy all its nukes and nuclear facilities first before having its sanctions lifted, Kim’s goal is to secure the easing of sanctions and get guarantees for security from the US first before considering dismantling its nuclear program.

And the conflicting agendas and goals between Washington and Pyongyang perhaps speak volumes about why the two countries can’t reach a consensus.

As North Korea is now under siege as a result of the international economic sanctions and the domestic food crisis, it is very likely that the latest missile firing could have been just an “appetizer”: Kim may further escalate his military provocation so as to force the US back to the negotiation table.

And given the ongoing trade war between the US and China, Beijing might not necessarily be willing to mediate this time around, thereby rendering the current crisis in the Korean Peninsula even more difficult to resolve.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal