U.S. condemned Kim Jong-un’s 1 Jan claim that DPRK will soon test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), warned against “provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric”. Beijing said it hoped “all parties will refrain from words and deeds that lead to the escalation of tension”. U.S. state department 3 Jan said it did not believe DPRK could mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile. U.S. 5 Jan said DPRK had shown “qualitative” improvement in nuclear and missile capabilities following unprecedented level of tests – 24 missile and two nuclear – in 2016; said vital for U.S., Japan, South Korea and other countries to cooperate against threat, sustain pressure through sanctions. DPRK state media 8 Jan warned Pyongyang could launch ICBM test “any time” from any location, blamed hostile U.S. policy for arms development. Outgoing U.S. sec defense called DPRK weapons capabilities and missile defence programs “serious threat”, said U.S. prepared to shoot down any missile launch or test coming toward U.S. or an ally that posed a threat, or monitor for intelligence. Outgoing U.S. Sec State John Kerry 10 Jan said situation could get dangerous, “getting close to it right now”. ROK intelligence agencies 18 Jan reported they had seen possible ICBM parts being transported, suggesting preparations for new missile test-launch underway. New U.S. administration 20 Jan said it would develop “state of the art” missile defence system to protect against attacks from DPRK and Iran; no details provided. U.S. think-tank 39 North said satellite imagery from 22 Jan suggested nuclear reactor at DPRK’s Yongbyon nuclear facility “very likely operating”; operations at facility previously suspended since late 2015. ROK Acting President Hwang 23 Jan said deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defence system could not be delayed, despite Chinese opposition; U.S. President Trump in 30 Jan phone call to Hwang reiterated “ironclad” commitment to defend ROK. Senior DPRK defector Thae Yong-ho 25 Jan said country’s elite increasingly expressing discontent toward regime, with low-level dissent.
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