2021-10-01 11:23:47 North Korea Missile Tests Are Part of a Familiar Strategy

North Korea Missile Tests Are Part of a Familiar Strategy

SEOUL, South Korea — The signals are perplexing. North Korea raises hopes for dialogue with South Korea one day, then launches missiles or displays the latest weaponry in its nuclear arsenal the next.

Only in the last week has North suggested inter-Korean summit talks and said it would reopen communication lines with its neighbor. It also launched long-range cruise missiles, demonstrated its first hypersonic missile, and tested a new antiaircraft missile on Thursday. It launched ballistic missiles from a train that rolled out of a mountain tunnel earlier in September, the same day it called South Korean President Moon Jae-in “stupid.” ​

North Korea is once again relying on a tried-and-true two-pronged strategy that allows it to flex its military muscles without risking retaliation or jeopardizing chances for dialogue.

In the absence of talks with Washington, North Korea’s missile tests served as a reminder to the world that the country is developing increasingly sophisticated weapons capable of delivering nuclear warheads. However, these short-range or still-in-development missiles do not pose a direct threat to the United States.

North Korea has also been careful not to go too far, avoiding testing a nuclear device or an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would jolt Washington into action with new sanctions or worse.

“North Korea is wary of crossing the red line,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies. “Amid all of these missile tests, North Korea is signaling its willingness to engage in dialogue.”

The North’s favorite geopolitical game has been dubbed the “hot-and-cold water bath” strategy. And it has served the regime well over the years, raising often-false hopes of peace while developing and testing new weapons. ​

North Korea is now implementing that strategy in the midst of a difficult diplomatic situation. Mr. Moon desperately wants dialogue on the Korean Peninsula to resume, as a last-ditch effort to cement his legacy before leaving office in May. The Biden administration, on the other hand, is less eager to engage the North.

Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, is now in a position to exploit the schism between the two allies.

Between 2018 and 2019, he met with then-President Donald J. Trump three times, making him the first North Korean leader to meet with a sitting American president. His diplomatic efforts, however, were unsuccessful in lifting the crippling sanctions imposed by the United Nations on his impoverished country following its nuclear and I.C.B.M. tests. The pandemic soon followed, further crippling the North’s economy.

Officials in the United States and South Korea had hoped that the North’s worsening economic woes, brought on by the double whammy of sanctions and the pandemic, would make North Korea more amenable to dialogue.

Mr. Kim has so far proven them wrong.

Since his talks with Mr. Trump fell through in early 2019, he has vowed to slog through the economic difficulties while expanding his nuclear arsenal, his country’s single best diplomatic leverage and deterrent against what it sees as American attempts to destabilize its government. Mr. Kim has sought to legitimize his rule by demonstrating his country’s growing military capabilities at a time when he has been unable to deliver much on the economic front to his long-suffering people. ​

According to Kim Dong-yub, an expert on North Korean weapons at the University of North Korean Studies, the anti-aircraft missile test on Thursday indicated that the North is developing a weapon similar to Russia’s S-400, one of the most powerful air-defense systems in the world.

The Biden administration has repeatedly urged North Korea to return to the negotiating table without preconditions. Mr. Kim, however, stated that he would not resume talks until he was convinced that Washington was willing to ease sanctions and its “hostile policy,” including joint annual military exercises with South Korea.

Mr. Kim made it clear in his discussions with Mr. Trump that he was more interested in talks to reduce nuclear weapons than in complete denuclearization. He proposed a partial dismantlement of his country’s nuclear facilities in exchange for Washington lifting sanctions. Mr. Trump declined the offer.

Mr. Kim told North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature on Wednesday, “The US is touting ‘diplomatic engagement’ and ‘dialogue without preconditions.” “However, it is nothing more than a petty ruse to deceive the international community and conceal its hostile acts.”

“North Korea isn’t interested in denuclearization talks to gain benefits for complying with UN resolutions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an international studies professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “It seeks to rewrite the rules and be compensated for its nuclear power’s restraint.”

As a result of all of this, the Biden administration is in a difficult bargaining position. Washington is hesitant to engage the North if it only wants to use dialogue to ease sanctions rather than give up its nuclear weapons. However, failing to engage means passing up opportunities to stifle the North’s arsenal development. It also runs the risk of igniting a regional arms race.

Mr. Kim can’t really try shocking provocations like the ones he carried out in 2017 — three I.C.B.M. tests and a nuclear test — that brought the Trump administration to the negotiating table. Such tests would exacerbate tensions, invite additional UN sanctions, and potentially incite China’s wrath by destabilizing the mood for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. ​

Analysts say Mr. Kim’s challenge is to persuade Washington to resume dialogue on his terms without alienating North Korea’s traditional allies, China and Russia, whose assistance is required to survive U.N. sanctions and rebuild its economy.

In the end, Mr. Moon’s government may offer Mr. Kim the most promising solution.

Mr. Moon is desperate to relaunch his signature foreign policy, the Korean Peninsula peace process, before his single, five-year term expires in May.

Mr. Moon told reporters last week that “it is our government’s destiny” to pursue dialogue with the North, referring to his efforts to build peace through his three meetings with Mr. Kim in 2018 and his efforts to help arrange the summit meetings between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump.

Mr. Kim also expressed reassurances to South Korea this week.

“We have no intention or reason to provoke South Korea, and we have no intention of harming it,” he said.

North Korea was courting South Korea while avoiding talks with Washington, according to Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. According to other analysts, North Korea is relying on South Korea to help bring Washington to the table.

Sung Kim, the United States’ special representative for North Korea, met with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea on Thursday and indicated that the United States would support humanitarian aid to North Korea as an incentive for dialogue.

Analysis questioned whether it would be sufficient.

“I am not sure the old method of providing humanitarian shipments as an incentive will work this time, given the North’s reluctance to accept outside help during the pandemic,” said Yang of the University of North Korean Studies. “North Korea desires that the United States address more fundamental issues concerning its well-being. It wants the US to make clearer commitments to easing sanctions and ensuring its security.”

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North Korea Missile Tests Are Part of a Familiar Strategy