New DPRK missile test and assassination of ruler’s estranged half-brother in Malaysia prompted widespread international condemnation. Pyongyang announced successful test of new medium- to long-range missile capable of carrying nuclear warhead 12 Feb, in further violation of UN sanctions. Kim Jong-nam, estranged half-brother of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, murdered in Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysia 13 Feb reportedly using highly toxic nerve agent. Malaysian police arrested two women directly involved, nationals of Vietnam and Indonesia, later arrested N Korean man, said four other N Korean suspects had fled country. U.S. Sec State Tillerson at first meeting with Chinese FM Wang 17 Feb urged China to “use all available tools” to moderate Pyongyang’s “destabilizing” behaviour. Chinese FM Wang 17 Feb supported resuming six-party talks; DPRK pulled out in 2009. China 18 Feb announced suspension of coal imports from DPRK until end 2017; later said year’s imports had already approached upper limits specified in Nov 2016 UNSC resolution. China 23 Feb denied reports it had increased troop presence on border with DPRK after Kim Jong-nam’s killing. U.S. denied visa for top DPRK envoy late Feb, reportedly forcing cancellation of planned track 1.5 talks with U.S. experts; Washington denied talks were scheduled. U.S. Sec Defense Jim Mattis, visiting Seoul 3 Feb, warned DPRK of “effective and overwhelming” response to attack on U.S. or allies, any use of nuclear weapons. South Korea 3 Feb reported DPRK’s minister of state security Kim Won-hong had been dismissed mid-Jan on charges of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses. ROK 27 Feb reported Pyongyang had executed at least five Ministry of State Security senior officials.
Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.
In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.
Although North Korea has offered unconditional dialogue since January, South Korea is maintaining a tough policy line towards the North as Seoul approaches a year of electoral campaign politics. The risk of conflict remains serious, particularly in the area near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the military demarcation in the Yellow Sea.
As the number of defectors from North Korea arriving in the South has surged in the past decade, reconfiguring integration programs for them has become crucial.
Originally published in The Interpreter