North Korean missile tests signal return to the brink

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korean leader Kim is struggling with pandemic difficulties and US-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions …

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – As he struggles with pandemic difficulties and US-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may revive his 2017 handbook on nuclear and missile-branding to wrest Washington and his neighbors concessions.

North Korea’s short-range missile launches on Monday were its fourth round of missile tests this month, signaling a refusal to be ignored by the Biden administration, which has focused more on confronting major opponents such as China and Russia.

The tests may also reflect a growing need for outside aid after its economy fell further under the severe sanctions and two years of pandemic border closures, experts say.

The two missiles, which were fired on Monday near the capital Pyongyang, followed a resumption of rail freight traffic with China, which had been suspended due to pandemic concerns, in what is likely an attempt to revive the desperate economy.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that trade between Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea will be maintained while pandemic control remains in place.

While North Korea is likely to continue showcasing its weapons in the coming weeks, it can keep things relatively quiet before the opening of the February Winter Olympics in China, its main ally and economic lifeline, and launch known short-range missiles rather than more provocative systems. .

But it could dramatically raise the ante when the Beijing Games end. Du Hyeogn Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Kim could resume testing nuclear explosives and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Kim suspended nuclear and ICBM tests in 2018 while participating in negotiations with former US President Donald Trump. But diplomacy has continued to derail since its second summit in 2019, in which the United States rejected North Korea’s demands for greater sanctions in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

In recent months, North Korea has stepped up tests of short-range missiles designed to defeat missile defenses in the region.

Its leaders may believe it is necessary to stage more provocative tests to move the needle with the Biden administration, which has offered open negotiations but has shown no willingness to ease sanctions unless Kim takes real steps to give up. nuclear weapons program.

It is unclear whether nuclear or ICBM testing would elicit a compromise from Washington that is more likely to respond with further sanctions and military pressure, possibly including a resumption of major military exercises with South Korea, Cha said.

Nam Sung-wook, an expert on North Korea at Seoul’s Korea University, said a nuclear test was more likely than an ICBM test because it would send a higher level of shock. The Nordics can use this test to claim that it has acquired an ability to produce a nuclear warhead small enough to fit its alleged hypersonic missile, as it first tested in September.

Nam said North Korea would time the test to maximize its political impact, with South Korean presidential elections scheduled for March and President Joe Biden facing crucial midterm elections in November. North Korea conducted its sixth and final test of a nuclear explosive in September 2017.

“In Pyongyang’s mind, there is no other way to capture Washington’s attention than a major provocation,” Nam said.

North Korea stepped up efforts to expand its weapons capabilities following Kim’s 2021 announcement of a new five-year plan to develop its military forces, with an ambitious wish list that included hypersonic missiles, solid-fuel ICBMs, spy satellites and submarine-fired nuclear missiles.

However, the frequency of tests since then exceeds the usual technological timelines and apparently reflects Kim’s desire to break out of the country’s current deeper economic problems and international isolation – what appears to be the toughest period of his decade – long rule.

“Externally, North Korea is trying to make a statement that it will continue to go its own way regardless of sanctions. “Internally, the leadership is trying to tell its people that the top leader’s promises will be fulfilled no matter what, whether it is weapons development or the overcoming of sanctions through a self-help economy,” Cha said.

“But they are continuing with the tests at a very fast pace, and this reveals a sense of alarm in Pyongyang’s leadership that they must get something done with the United States by 2022, otherwise there may be problems.”

According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s trade with China fell by about 80% in 2020, before falling again by two-thirds in the first nine months of 2021. The decline in 2020 was the largest since 1997, when grain production fell to its lowest level since Kim took power. in 2011.

North Korea describes its anti-coronavirus campaign as a matter of “national existence” and has severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade for the past two years and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot all intruders crossing its borders.

Experts say a major COVID-19 outbreak would have devastating consequences due to North Korea’s poor health system and could even trigger instability.

Its resumption of the train route with China indicates how difficult it has become for its management to withstand the economic strain caused by border closures, said Park Won Gon, professor of North Korea studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.

For decades, North Korea has mastered the art of brinkmanship, fabricating diplomatic crises with weapons tests and threats before offering negotiations aimed at extracting concessions. Kim accelerated the process in 2017 with a very provocative series of nuclear and ICBM tests, while exchanging threats of nuclear annihilation with Trump before beginning their diplomacy in 2018.

North Korea began 2022 with what it claimed were two successful tests of a hypersonic missile that Kim said would improve his “war deterrent.” After the Biden administration imposed new sanctions on these launches, North Korea promised stronger and more explicit action and fired two missiles from a train on Friday.

State media footage of Monday’s launch suggests North tested a weapon similar to the US MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System. The missiles, which North Korea first tested in 2019, are part of the country’s expanding short-range weapons designed to be maneuverable and fly at low altitudes, potentially improving their chances of avoiding missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan.

Park said North Korea’s push to develop and mass-produce such missiles is an important part of the country’s efforts to cement its status as a nuclear power. Its press campaign is not only aimed at gaining economic benefits, but also at negotiating with Washington from a position of power and transforming nuclear diplomacy into negotiations on mutual arms reduction, he said.

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Kim Tong-hyung has been covering Korea for The Associated Press since 2014.

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