What's behind North Korea's latest 'significant' test?

December 11, 2019 13:25
North Korea has warned of a 'new path' amid stalled denuclearization talks with the United States and continuing sanctions. File picture: KCNA via Reuters

According to a report published on Sunday by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea's key official mouthpiece, Pyongyang carried out a “very significant test” at the Sohae satellite launch site located in the North Pyongan province the previous day.

The KCNA report claimed that the successful test will alter the strategic might of North Korea.

Given the fact that the launch site is closely related to Pyongyang’s Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, some experts believe North Korea may have achieved major breakthroughs in ballistic missile technology, which would enable the country to enhance its nuclear deterrent capabilities.

As there is only less than a month left before the deadline for the US to soften its stance and reopen denuclearization talks with North Korea, it is not difficult to understand why Pyongyang is getting increasingly impatient with the fact that Washington is yet to ease the current economic sanctions against it.

And despite its UN ambassador Kim Song’s hawkish remarks that denuclearization of his country is now “off the table”, Pyongyang is apparently still keen on engaging Washington in dialogue, only that the pending negotiation must be headed towards a direction that is in the North's best interest.

But does that fully explain why Pyongyang suddenly carried out a suspected rocket-related test last Saturday?

In our view, while we don’t rule out the possibility that Kim Jong-un could be attempting to force President Donald Trump back to the negotiation table by flexing his country’s military muscle, we believe there could also have been a “China element” behind the latest test.

Professor Shi Yinhong, an international relations academic with the Renmin University of China, has recently provided us with some clues on that.

Earlier, during a media interview, Shi said China can refuse to cooperate with the US on the North Korea and Iran issues as a form of “counter-measures” against the enactment of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act by Washington.

Based on Shi’s opinion, and the timing, we believe it would be logical to infer that Beijing could have been involved in Pyongyang’s latest missile test as a diplomatic manoeuver to play the “North Korea card” in order to gain leverage over the US on issues such as trade disputes, Xinjiang human rights and the anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版

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Hong Kong Economic Journal