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A Calm Response Needed to North Korea’s Missile Brinkmanship
A Calm Response Needed to North Korea’s Missile Brinkmanship
Counting Down to North Korea’s Year-end Deadline
Counting Down to North Korea’s Year-end Deadline
Op-Ed / Asia

A Calm Response Needed to North Korea’s Missile Brinkmanship

There can be few in the international community who would not wish that Kim Jong-Il could find some more constructive way of seeking attention than provocatively launching a missile over the heads of his neighbours, as North Korea seems likely to do in the next day or two. But at least his current behaviour is more or less predictable: Pyongyang regularly engages in tantrums and brinkmanship when faced with stresses at home, political changes abroad, or failure to get what it wants in negotiations.

What is a little less clear is how the other five countries in the Six-Party talks will respond to North Korea's launch of an experimental communications satellite, which will use a rocket that is part of its ballistic missile program. At the moment there is an unhappy prospect of real divisions opening up between China and Russia, taking a softer line, and the US, Japan and South Korea taking a harder one.

Washington and Tokyo would certainly like to argue a breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1695, passed after North Korea's last barrage of missile launches in 2006 and demanding that it stop them in future. But, with likely support from Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang argues this does not extend to a peaceful satellite rocket launch permitted under the Outer Space Treaty. North Korea does have credible reasons for wanting to show its ability to put satellites into space, and in a dual-use situation like this, the legal argument for applying 1695 is at best inconclusive.

China's  and Russia's evident lack of  concern about  North Korea's  threatened launch, contrasts with Japan at the other end of the spectrum. Tokyo has been vociferous, saying it will shoot down the rocket if it threatens to fall on its territory. But while this tough response please domestic audiences, history shows that pressure alone is very unlikely to influence Pyongyang's behaviour in a positive way.

Neither very hard nor very soft approaches are going to get Pyongyang back to seriously negotiating the denuclearisation of North Korea. The five parties need to be more prudent and pragmatic.

First, they need to make a realistic assessment of exactly what a missile test would mean. A test failure would no doubt be the best outcome the international community could hope for. A successful launch would gain Kim Jong-il some credit domestically, but only slightly increase the security risks Japan, South Korea and the US actually face. The tested and reliable Nodong missile can already carry a nuclear warhead as far as Tokyo, and while the Taepongdo-2 missile involved in the current launch preparations could carry one to Alaska, Pyongyang knows it would be devastated in any response.

Second, it needs to be recognised that an overblown response, such as Japan or the US shooting down the rocket, would  jeopardise the Six-Party Talks to end North Korea's nuclear program. The five parties would be openly split more than ever before, and North Korea would see this as a sign of Tokyo and Washington's implacable hostility and almost certainly withdraw from the Talks.

It could also worsen tensions on the Korean Peninsula and promote hard liners in Pyongyang at a time when the North is facing strains over succession. In the worst case, albeit unlikely, it could risk a war with potentially devastating damage to Japan and South Korea -- not to mention the world economy. Another bad scenario would be for  either Japan or the US to try but fail to shoot down the missile, which would certainly lead to North Korea  being further emboldened.

Rather than either raising the level of alarm over a launch likely to go ahead in any case, or doing nothing at all in response, all five other members of the Six-Party Talks should agree to a moderate set of measures that maintains their unity in the face of North Korea's aggressive action. They could do this by issuing a joint statement condemning the launch as provocative in the current tense climate, reaffirming the relevant Security Council Resolutions (1695, and its successor 1718), and demanding that North Korea return to the Six-Party Talks.

They could back this up by reinvigorating the Security Council committee monitoring the UN sanctions regime, including calling on member states to report regularly on measures such as the ban on transfers of weapons to North Korea, and by taking action against any violators of that ban.

Finally, Japan, South Korea, and the US should agree on an overall package of incentives, including diplomatic relations and expanded economic development assistance, that can be presented to the North Koreans - after an appropriate cooling off period -- in exchange for major steps forward in nuclear and missile disarmament.

North Korea's latest provocative moves are frustrating and threatening, but escalation will benefit no one. What is needed is a calm, coordinated response from the key actors to raise pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks, not the divided reaction that Kim Jong-Il wants.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). Reuters/North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
Q&A / Asia

Counting Down to North Korea’s Year-end Deadline

North Korea is testing the United States, issuing threats and launching short-range missile tests while talks over its nuclear program have stalled. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Duyeon Kim explains what could be motivating Pyongyang’s escalation and what to expect in 2020. 

What is North Korea doing and what does it mean?

North Korea has taken a series of escalatory steps by conducting 13 missile tests (short-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) since May and lodging threats including an unwelcome “Christmas gift” it will present if the U.S. fails to propose a new deal by the end of the year. Pyongyang upped the ante again on 8 December, by claiming to have conducted a “very important” test at the Sohae satellite launching ground – likely of a rocket engine; five days later, it carried out another such test at the same facility to strengthen its “strategic nuclear deterrent”, another way of describing capabilities relevant for a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Pyongyang has been demanding a “new calculation” in Washington’s negotiating position.

Pyongyang has been demanding a “new calculation” in Washington’s negotiating position, by which it means a proposal closer to its desired terms. If its unilaterally-imposed deadline expires with no satisfactory deal, North Korea warned, it will seek “a new path”.

Pyongyang appears to have four objectives: first, to force Washington to propose a deal to implement the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement conforming more precisely to its terms before the year is out; secondly, to raise international concerns about a return to the dangerous situation of escalatory rhetoric and actions that prevailed in 2017; thirdly, to continue improving its missile technology; and last, to lay the foundation for justifying more aggressive actions it may decide to take next year by saying Washington left it no choice.

The two tests at Sohae this month­ – a facility Trump claimed that Kim promised to dismantle when they met in Singapore in June 2018 – are thus significant for technological and political reasons. Based on satellite imagery, Pyongyang appears to have tested an engine that could be used in an ICBM or satellite launch vehicle. Perfecting these technologies through repeated testing would bring North Korea closer to acquiring reliable nuclear weapons capable of reaching the U.S. and Europe. With the Sohae tests, Pyongyang seems to be implying that it might scrap its moratorium on testing long-range missiles, which it imposed unilaterally in April 2018. Indeed, on 12 December, one day before the second engine test, North Korea’s foreign affairs ministry said the country would take “countermeasures corresponding to anything the U.S. opts for” , in reference to a UN Security Council meeting that discussed recent missile tests. It added that by convening the meeting, “the U.S. did a foolish thing that will boomerang on it, and decisively helped us make a definite decision on what way to choose”. This statement could be read as a threat of an ICBM test to come if the year-end deadline lapses without a satisfactory U.S. proposal.

What is North Korea implying by referring to a “new calculation”?

In his 2019 New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un warned that if the U.S. did not follow through with North Korea’s reading of U.S. commitments under the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement, he would find a “new way” (or “new path”) to defend his country and achieve peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. After the 2019 March Hanoi summit, Pyongyang has been demanding a “new calculation” in Washington’s negotiating style. Then, in an April 2019 speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang, Kim warned that Washington had until the end of the year to present a new “political calculation method”. That new calculation could be one that reverses the U.S.’s desired negotiation sequence.

Historically, in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, the U.S. and other parties involved have demanded Pyongyang first take, or agree to, some significant, credible and verifiable steps toward denuclearisation before beginning to reap benefits ­– such as sanctions relief, economic aid, normal diplomatic ties with the U.S. and security guarantees including a peace regime (ie, a comprehensive system of norms, institutions, and rules on the Korean peninsula that ensures lasting peace underpinned by a peace treaty to replace the current armistice).

Pyongyang’s new negotiating posture appears to reflect the regime’s increased confidence.

In contrast, Kim may now be testing how far he can go in demanding that North Korea first be rewarded – through the lifting of key UN Security Council sanctions and an end to all U.S.-South Korean joint military drills (most of which have already been cancelled as part of Trump’s gesture to Kim at the Singapore summit) ­– before it agrees to hold meaningful discussions on its nuclear weapons, let alone take any significant, credible, and verifiable steps toward denuclearisation.

Pyongyang’s new negotiating posture appears to reflect the regime’s increased confidence, born of the important strides it has taken toward manufacturing far more sophisticated nuclear weapons and missile technology than under Kim’s father or grandfather’s leadership.

What might happen if North Korea’s year-end deadline lapses without progress?

Among the many paths from which Pyongyang might choose if the deadline expires without a U.S. proposal it deems satisfactory, two in particular bear watching.

In the first, it might continue with the gray-zone provocations it has been conducting since May – actions below Trump’s apparent ICBM and nuclear test threshold, including short-range ballistic missile tests, submarine-launched ballistic missile tests, missile engine tests and cyberattacks. It might go further by testing a satellite launch vehicle. Kim could choose this option if he perceives Trump would retaliate militarily if Pyongyang crossed his assumed ICBM and nuclear test red line (drawn in 2017).This scenario still presents upsides for North Korea: it would be able to continue improving its missiles’ precision; could keep fine-tuning and mass-producing its nuclear weapons and might ramp up operations at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Meanwhile, it could continue developing what it calls a “self-reliant” economy, with Chinese and perhaps Russian help, and perhaps strengthen ties with the like-minded countries (“socialist countries and … countries that are friendly to” Pyongyang) Kim mentioned in his 2019 New Year’s Day address.

In a second scenario, Pyongyang could go farther and resume ICBM and perhaps nuclear tests, blaming the U.S. for the breakdown in diplomacy. Were Pyongyang to go down this route, however, it could prompt a harsh reaction from Washington and set in motion a dangerous dynamic. It would, therefore, be important for China, a key North Korean ally with some leverage over its economic development, to privately admonish Pyongyang to steer clear of this path even if diplomacy with Washington were to fail.

North Korea’s decision will likely be based on its perception of the U.S. administration’s intentions and actions.

North Korea’s decision will likely be based on its perception of the U.S. administration’s intentions and actions, and whether it feels that Trump has ignored its year-end deadline or maintained an attitude Pyongyang deems “hostile”. North Korea would consider elements such as the U.S. president’s rhetorical attacks, the conduct of U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, human rights criticism, or a finding by the U.S. administration (or another government) that a North Korean entity has violated international sanctions in making this assessment.

Kim may have settled on details of his “new path” at a rare, multi-day Workers’ Party meeting that began on 28 December. North Korea’s state media has provided hints of what he said, reporting that the plenary meeting of the Party’s Central Committee laid out a “transparent anti-imperialist independent stand” for the country and discussed “offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country as required by the present situation”. The plenary party meeting, one of the country’s highest decision-making bodies, also reportedly discussed a range of economic and domestic issues, suggesting that the meeting is teeing up Kim’s New Year’s Day address that will likely reveal details of his “new path”. This speech is significant because it outlines Pyongyang’s domestic and foreign policy priorities and work plan for the coming year.