让美国与朝韩的外交博弈保持一致
让美国与朝韩的外交博弈保持一致
Making Sense of North Korea’s Spate of Missile Tests
Making Sense of North Korea’s Spate of Missile Tests
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcome ceremony at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, in Pyongyang, North Korea, 18 September 2018 yeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS
Commentary / Asia

让美国与朝韩的外交博弈保持一致

朝鲜和韩国的领导人举行了为期三天的峰会,自918日开始了新一轮的南北朝鲜外交。与此同时,美国和朝鲜的关系又恢复到之前的糟糕状态。韩国政府助力重新启动与朝鲜政府富有成效的联系,美国政府应当对这一举动表示欢迎。

韩国总统文在寅于周二上午到达平壤,开始为期三天的访问。此次与朝鲜领导人金正恩的会面将会对2018年剩下的时间及未来做出计划。但两国关系的进展将部分取决于双方能否逆转自6月12日金正恩和唐纳德·特朗普总统在新加坡会面以来美国对朝鲜事务参与减少的颓势。

朝鲜的外交博弈从9月9日的70周年国庆日开始。庆典上包括了在金日成广场上矩形的阅兵式和大型团体操表演。值得注意的是一位中国高级官员,中共中央政治局常委栗战书的出现 。他帮助朝鲜政府实现了首要的外交目标:在与韩国(很可能也同美国)进行更近一步的对话之前,证明朝鲜与中国关系的稳固。

现在轮到了韩国方面,文在寅履行了其4月27日在韩朝停战村板门店第一次与金正恩的会晤中访朝的承诺,带着紧凑的议程到访朝鲜。文在寅将要再次担当他曾于2018年上半年取得相当成功的调解人角色,促使金正恩采取切实行动实现半岛无核化,以为与美国的对话扫除障碍。他还将致力于减少朝韩之间在黄海(西海)问题上产生冲突的持续风险。根据四月份会晤达成的《板门店宣言》,朝韩双方会达成一项包含建立联合捕鱼区的协议,将“西海北面界限附近的区域转变为军事和平区”。

韩国政府极不可能为了与朝鲜建立经济联系而违反联合国安理会决议、损害自己的名誉

文在寅带去了包括政府官员和工业界高管在内的约200人的代表团。代表团中有韩国“四大巨头”三星、现代、SK集团和LG 的领导,以及浦项钢铁公司和韩国发展银行的主席。这些企业领袖的出现意味着朝鲜可从和平中获利,也表明韩国政府在国内一系列经济政策遭遇挫折的情况下,希望在朝韩经济关系上取得进展。

代表团的构成同时也表明,韩国政府对突破与朝鲜经济合作的限制急不可待。韩国方面展现出迫切合作意见的一大根据是,9月14日,朝韩在北部境内的开城开设了板门店宣言中规定的联络处时。联络处李朝韩两国官员在不同的楼层办公,中间有一个会议室。该处旨在为朝韩沟通提供可靠的渠道,同时也将是协调未来经济交流的中心,。

韩国经济受限源于2017年大大加强的国际制裁制度和2010年5月韩国施加的单边制裁。文在寅政府的个人立场是朝鲜(经济)已经从制裁中获得一些恢复。然而,韩国政府极不可能为了与朝鲜建立经济关系而违反联合国安理会决议,损害自己作为负责任的国际事务参与者的名誉。

不幸的是,在中国和朝鲜的关系有所改善,而韩国也在有限范围内寻求以创造性的方式与朝鲜建立联系时,美国和朝鲜的谈判却停滞不前。自6月份特朗普和金正恩的会面以来,美朝关系的显著恶化使得美国国务卿迈克·蓬佩奥原计划于8月底第四次到访平壤的行程在最后一刻尴尬地被取消。文在寅前往平壤,正是试图阻止美朝关系的恶化。

美国面临要承担朝鲜半岛问题没有进展之责备的风险

美国现在发现自己处于困境。美国政府极力主张在自己采取措施之前,应立即采取额外的无核化措施(除了拆除平壤的核试验场和导弹发动机试验设备),但这并不符合韩国政府的经济优先政策。美国政府如果忽视了关系的中断,就会面临要承担朝鲜半岛问题没有进展之责备的风险,同时为朝鲜破坏美韩联盟的战略谋取了方便。

就文在寅而言,他试图安抚那些批评他的人。批评人士认为,他急于建立朝韩联系可能会削弱美韩联盟。当高级部长官员们忙于在开城设立朝韩联络处时,文在寅在朝鲜半岛最南端的巨济岛奥波造船厂为海军的攻击潜艇举行仪式。为了平息国内外国家安全保守派的恐惧,他把韩国的朝韩策略描述为“通过实力实现和平”政策之一,并提到他的政府拥有一支强大的军队;而他的更鹰派的对手认为与美国保持紧密联系是维护朝鲜半岛和平的基础。

从某种程度上来讲,美国和韩国之间不断加深的分歧是美国政府内部机能失调的产物。许多韩国政府人士认为,特朗普对与金正日外交进展的乐观态度和他们认为的大部分美国政府的国家安全机构的悲观前景存在差距。专家们起初担心特朗普会对朝鲜发动奇袭产生的灾难性代价漠不关心,但如今华府内部的普遍观点是他太容易被操纵。

令人担心的是,特朗普会在没有获取足够互利让步的情况下,放弃结束朝鲜战争政治宣言这一战利品。美国政府内部的强硬派认为韩国政府可能会因此获取强大的力量,从而迫使美国政府从半岛撤军,因为美军驻韩的主要原因将不复存在。尽管特朗普可能会欢迎这个撤军的机会,认为可以节省开支;但是他的安全顾问和华盛顿的大部分国家安全机构肯定不会苟同。反对观点认为,特朗普的政治直觉要比他的顾问们好:他应该给朝鲜一个相对不那么兴师动众的促成半岛和平的环境,然后观察结果,并不需要同意撤军要求。这些都是重要的观点,但是美国政府的行事方式却造成了政策不一致的感觉。

不管美国是否同意这样的宣言,也会有其他措施来改变会谈。美国对朝韩联络处的明确支持态度为缓解朝韩边境的紧张军事局势起到重要作用,也将有助于恢复与韩国一致的目标。更妙的是,有相关人士建议,美国政府在平壤设立一个联络处以适当的方式考察朝鲜的意图。尽管美国政府先行签署和约可能不太寻常,但是这会让美国保持与朝韩事务的统一步调。韩国政府希望开城的新联络处将会成为在朝韩两国首都开设外交代表处的先驱。

特朗普6月12日在新加坡与金正恩会晤后发表的联合声明中承诺的新型美朝关系已经消失。9月的下半段时间为三位领导人提供了重建外交和弥补损失的机会。当文在寅和特朗普在联合国大会的外场会晤时,这位韩国的领导人一定会带来自金正恩的消息。朝鲜可能愿意做出让步,推动朝鲜问题和平解决。若诚然如此,美国必须要敞开心怀接受文在寅,并且准备好提出创造性的己见。

Official image released by North Korea state media on Friday Jan 28, 2022 shows leader Kim Jong Un inspects a missile munitions factory producing a major weapon system at an undisclosed location in North Korea. EyePress News / EyePress via AFP
Commentary / Asia

Making Sense of North Korea’s Spate of Missile Tests

Pyongyang’s string of missile tests at the turn of 2022 indicates its discontent with how diplomacy has sputtered on the Korean peninsula since the 2019 summit. Fresh overtures may fall short of bringing it back to the table, but they are worth a try.

At the turn of 2022, Pyongyang dramatically increased the pace of its missile testing, raising fears of renewed North Korean brinksmanship after an extended period of relative calm. That calm was a function, first, of a diplomatic process with the United States that played out during the last three years of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and, secondly, of the COVID-19 pandemic. But January saw seven separate testing events, more than during any single calendar month on record. On 5 and again on 11 January, Pyongyang tested what it claimed were hypersonic weapons. It then tested a pair of mobile short-range ballistic missiles – derived from Soviet technology acquired long ago –from a train on 14 January and two “tactical guided missiles” on 17 January. On 25 January it fired two “long-range cruise” missiles, and on 27 January it launched two more short-range ballistic missiles. The most notable of the January tests was, however, the last: a 30 January launch of the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).

The Hwasong-12, which is capable of overflying Japan and reaching U.S. bases in Okinawa and the U.S. territory of Guam, was launched on a lofted trajectory, constraining its flight to approximately 800km at a maximum altitude of 2,000km. By North Korean standards, this stunted flight arguably signalled considerable restraint. Yet it was Pyongyang’s longest-range test since the launch of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017. For that reason alone, it is the greatest provocation North Korea has engaged in since the “fire and fury” era of 2016 and 2017, when a combination of nuclear and missile tests and particularly bellicose rhetoric from both Pyongyang and Washington led some observers to fear the Korean peninsula was on the brink of conflict.

The 30 January IRBM launch raised alarms in Washington, particularly because it followed Pyongyang’s thinly veiled threat to put an end to its unilateral moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing, which it self-imposed in early 2018 during the run-up to the historic June summit between Trump and General Secretary Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Although dialogue then stalled following the failure of the second Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, in February 2019, the moratorium held. Both the U.S. and South Korea have repeatedly said since that a return to the testing the North suspended would amount to crossing a non-negotiable red line, closing the door to further diplomatic efforts for the foreseeable future.

For most of February, the North halted testing, likely in order to avoid aggravating its main economic patron and political backer, China, during the Beijing Winter Olympics. But the Olympic games concluded on 20 February, and although, as a rule, conflict risks associated with North Korean missile testing remain low, question marks remain about what may happen next both militarily and diplomatically on the peninsula. On 27 February, Japan and South Korea announced that they had detected a new launch, possibly of a ballistic missile. Pyongyang did not confirm such a launch, announcing instead that it had tested camera technology for a reconnaissance satellite and providing high-altitude photos, thus setting the stage for a potentially much more provocative testing regimen in the coming months.

Beginning 2022 with a Bang

January’s spate of missile launches was anticipated by official statements from Pyongyang suggesting that North Korea has decided to incrementally raise the stakes by military means. At the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party in January 2021, as reported by North Korean state media, Kim Jong-un declared that a period of military development (and, by extension, testing) would be coming, something that he implicitly reaffirmed at a plenary meeting of the party’s central committee held in late December.

A U.S. proposal for new punitive measures against Pyongyang was rejected by China and Russia.

With the testing tempo noticeably increasing in the last few months of 2021 and spiking yet further in early January 2022, a concerned UN Security Council convened to discuss the matter on 10 January. It was less than successful. A U.S. proposal for new punitive measures against Pyongyang was rejected by China and Russia, and the meeting ended without a meaningful decision. Two days later, the U.S. pivoted to impose unilateral sanctions on six North Korean citizens, one Russian national and a Russian firm linked to North Korean weapons programs.

If anything, this move seems to have given North Korea more impetus. On 14 January, the North Korean foreign ministry accused the U.S. of “intentionally escalating the situation by imposing unilateral sanctions”, adding: “If the U.S. defiantly adopts such a confrontational stance, [we] can’t but show a stronger and clear reaction to it”. Then, at a 20 January politburo meeting, as reported by state media, Pyongyang went on to openly threaten an end to its self-imposed moratorium, saying it would “promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities”. The UN Security Council met again that same day, again with inconclusive results. The IRBM test followed shortly thereafter, once again violating the UN’s ban on Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests, but without breaking the North’s own ICBM test moratorium, an escalatory step that would have caused greater international consternation.

The string of tests reflects Pyongyang’s discontent at the direction events have taken since the abortive U.S.-North Korea Hanoi summit in February 2019. The diplomatic efforts that began in the run-up to Singapore, faltered at Hanoi and sputtered along until close to the end of the Trump administration did not lead to a breakthrough in relations with the U.S., nor the easing of UN sanctions that Pyongyang hoped would come with it, nor the inter-Korean economic resurgence that could have been an important result. North Korea’s only significant gain in the international arena over the last few years was to stabilise economic and political relations with China, which had reached a low point in 2017 after several years of decline, but which recovered thanks to North Korea’s decision to halt testing and engage the U.S. and South Korea, first on the sidelines of the 2018 Winter Olympics and then through the ensuing rounds of senior-level diplomacy.

What Pyongyang does next is an open question. The January testing spree was followed by a hiatus while China hosted the Winter Olympics for much of February. At a time when it is seeking to get its economy back on an even keel, North Korea still cannot afford to truly jeopardise relations with China. But Pyongyang is facing a decision about whether to maintain its current pause or resume, and potentially escalate, testing. The apparent 27 February launch suggests it has at least chosen to resume. What happens next will be driven in part by technical requirements linked to North Korea’s weapons development plans, but also by several other considerations including inter-Korean dynamics, the Biden administration’s approach to peninsular affairs, and economic, social and political conditions in North Korea itself.

Inter-Korean Dynamics

The recent missile tests are not the first since the failure of the second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February 2019. Indeed, North Korea’s first post-Hanoi launch came as early as May the same year, even as the diplomatic process with Seoul and Washington was still under way. But the testing conducted in 2019 and 2020 was mostly of short-range projectiles, did not involve new weapons systems and was well within the terms of the self-declared moratorium.

The current testing cycle, however, is different. It began when Pyongyang launched cruise missiles on 11 and 12 September 2021, followed by railway-mobile ballistic missiles from a location in South Pyongan province on 15 September, and a submarine-launch ballistic missile (SLBM) a month later. Although within the lines of the moratorium, these were deliberately eye-catching, especially the launches from a train. In that regard, they were like the January 2022 tests that followed.

The timing of those autumn 2021 tests formed part of Pyongyang’s response to annual joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea held in August. The response was initiated a month earlier on 8 August, the day Seoul confirmed that the exercises would begin on 10 August, when North Korea stopped answering regular calls on inter-Korean hotlines designed to reduce risk along the inter-Korean border. Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister and a reliable messenger of North Korean discontent, said in a statement carried by state media that if South Korea were to carry out the military exercises with the U.S., it would damage the resolve of the two Koreas to rebuild relations. Kim Yong-chol, head of the North Korean ruling party’s United Front Department (which is the equivalent of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification), vowed a day later to make South Korea and the U.S. “pay dearly” for staging their annual drills, stating via state media that the decision meant “letting the opportunity [for improved inter-Korean relations] go”.

But beyond signalling frustration with the joint exercises, the September and October tests served three further purposes. They were timed to send, first, a message of defiance to both the U.S. and Japan, whose nuclear envoys met with their South Korean counterpart on 13 September to discuss strategies to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, and secondly, one of aggravation to China, whose foreign minister was having lunch with his South Korean colleague Chung Eui-yong in Seoul at the time of the ballistic missile launches on 15 September. They also correlated with missile tests carried out by South Korea. Seoul conducted an SLBM test of its own on 15 September, with President Moon Jae-in in attendance, and revealed a new air-launch cruise missile the same day. On 21 October, two days after North Korea’s SLBM launch, South Korea launched its civilian Nuri rocket into space. While nominally separate from weapons testing, the rocket launch involved indigenous ballistic technology. It also came against the backdrop of the U.S. dropping all restrictions on South Korean missile ranges in May 2021, leading North Korea to interpret the launch as a sign of growing military risk.

South Korea’s implicit green light from the U.S. to develop space launch vehicles could embolden North Korea still further in its efforts to develop its own ballistic technology. Pyongyang has in the past conducted several ostensibly civilian space rocket launches, but not for several years. Kim Jong-un hinted at the likelihood of another in his speech to the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party in January 2021, saying the country must aim to launch a military reconnaissance satellite within five years. Given that it hitched a satellite launch to the 100th birth anniversary of national founder Kim Il-sung in April 2012, killing the U.S.-North Korea “leap day deal”, there is the potential for another for the 110th anniversary in April. The 27 February satellite camera test and the fact that South Korea is due to make a second attempt with its Nuri rocket in June only make this prospect seem more likely.

The Role of the Biden Administration

South Korea has indicated that it would very much like to create new momentum for diplomatic engagement with the North, although this desire is in tension with its own military testing. But Washington’s reticence to get involved in inter-Korean dynamics over the last year has, when coupled to North Korea’s own silence with respect to diplomacy, left the South a bit at sea.

The Biden administration has projected some passivity on the North Korea issue.

Since it took office in January 2021, the Biden administration has projected some passivity on the North Korea issue, exemplified by the pace and style of staffing decisions. Following the departure of Ambassador Harry Harris from Seoul in January 2021, Washington did not nominate a successor for over a year. Seasoned diplomat Sung Y. Kim was appointed as special envoy for North Korea policy in May 2021, but though Kim is highly experienced in Korean affairs, he is juggling two jobs – he is also the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia – suggesting that the Korea file is presently not a top priority in Washington. This may have reflected the Biden administration’s sense that there was little progress to be made, at least in 2021. Mired in fears of a potentially ruinous COVID-19 outbreak within its borders, North Korea was unlikely to restart dialogue. While South Korea’s President Moon was keen to re-engage in talks, even holding out the possibility of a last-minute summit in the hope of building his own legacy and smoothing the transition to his successor – who will be elected in national elections in March – officials in Washington did not appear to see much prospect for a return to denuclearisation talks.

Absent U.S. engagement, Pyongyang ignored Seoul’s entreaties to engage in talks as essentially meaningless, and simultaneously sought ways to raise its international profile and improve its negotiating position. Now that the North has entered a more assertive phase of this process, the U.S. and South Korea are poorly coordinated on how to deal with it. The bilateral disconnect is compounded by the uncertainty created by South Korea’s 9 March presidential election. Because the election – which pits Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party against the conservative former Chief Prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol – could spell a change in direction for the South’s inter-Korean policies, it is difficult for either Washington or Seoul to develop far-reaching plans until afterward.

North Korea: From Stressed to Confident?

North Korea closed its land borders with China in January 2020 in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. For almost two years thereafter, the country conducted no overland trade with its biggest economic partner, relying almost entirely on fitful trade through the port of Nampo, much of it from the Chinese city of Dalian. The strict border closure led to considerable economic distress, triggering food insecurity and affecting household incomes, as shown by demand switching from relatively costly rice to the cheaper alternative, corn, and prices for manufactured goods rising dramatically as supplies grew scarcer. Even among the Pyongyang middle class, a knowledgeable source told Crisis Group, hard currency reserves dwindled over the course of 2021, and peer-to-peer lending between members of the middle class largely stopped.

But later in the year, as the state began to feel it had more of a handle on the pandemic, that began to change. Beginning late in the autumn, trade began to slowly bounce back via the seaport in Nampo, and macro-economic conditions within North Korea somewhat stabilised. The pace ramped up further in January 2022 when overland trade resumed after a period of planning. Freight trains began to more regularly cross the border between Dandong, in China, and the North Korean city of Sinuiju. Every train entering North Korea now travels 14km to a quarantine facility at an old Korean People’s Army Air Force base in Uiju, where goods are unloaded, disinfected and quarantined before distribution. Similar facilities have been established for other crossings, including on the Russian border, and seem set to start operating in the coming months.

Rather than slow this trend, the emergence of COVID-19’s omicron variant in late 2021 seems to have reinforced Pyongyang’s growing sense of self-assurance, according to Crisis Group interlocutors. The relative mildness of the variant, emerging treatments and availability of vaccines for those whom the state deems need them appear to have helped the leadership feel comfortable reopening its land borders to the flow of goods and resuming some day-to-day diplomacy while avoiding the need for a mass vaccination program that, from Pyongyang’s perspective, would allow suppliers to engage in foul play and present a grave risk to national security.

North Korea’s renewed confidence in its ability to conduct economic, diplomatic and of course military activities exemplifies Kim Jong-un’s comment during the fourth plenum of the Workers’ Party, in December, that North Korea has come “to have clear vision about our possibility and self-confidence”. This return to a degree of normalcy is also reflected in the country’s diplomatic sphere. In Pyongyang, diplomats who remained in the North Korean capital despite the pandemic’s hardships were invited to attend celebrations of the 80th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth in Kim Il-sung Square on 16 February, marking the first such welcome of non-Koreans to a public event since 2019.

What Next?

It is clear that North Korea plans to continue building, improving and testing its weapons systems, as Kim Jong-un laid out in January 2021 when discussing the party’s priorities for military strengthening over the next five years. With support from Russia and China in the UN Security Council  minimising the risk that further tests will generate a new generation of UN sanctions, increased trade volumes across land borders bringing in hard currency to government accounts, and the threat of COVID-19 diminished, North Korea can only feel increasingly confident that it has room to implement a military and political strategy that, it no doubt hopes, will improve its bargaining position.

In the immediate term, there is little hope that international diplomacy could convince it to change course. Notwithstanding the Olympic hiatus, Pyongyang presumably intends to complete its testing cycle for military purposes. North Korea also treats military testing as a way to position itself as a political variable in Seoul politics. Alternating between tensions and periods of calm keeps the left and right in a state of constant disagreement in Seoul; it also offers Pyongyang a means of ensuring that a bipartisan consensus on what to do about the “North Korea problem” does not emerge in the South. Finally, if North Korea decides that it will conduct military tests or, more likely, launch a satellite under the auspices of celebrating the anniversary of national founder Kim Il-sung’s birth on 15 April, there is little international actors can do to shift it from that path.

What remains to be seen is whether Pyongyang opts to focus its attention solely on the military sphere once the South Korean 9 March election and the 15 April anniversary pass, or whether proactive diplomacy from Seoul and Washington along the way could prompt it to come back to the negotiating table to discuss mitigating hostilities and managing nuclear risk to the point where sanctions lifting starts to become feasible from the U.S. perspective. The evidence thus far is not particularly encouraging, but while there are no assurances Pyongyang would play along, it is worth a try.

The Biden administration … will need to focus more intently on the peninsula.

Such an effort will require several things to come together, however. As a threshold matter, the Biden administration – right now enormously distracted by the Ukraine crisis – will need to focus more intently on the peninsula. One useful step Washington could take would be recommitting to the Singapore Declaration that Kim and Trump signed at their first meeting in 2018. That document provides most importantly for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and U.S. security guarantees for Pyongyang. It would be a viable starting point for fresh talks. Although vague, it constitutes a loose framework for dialogue both sides can accept. Kim spoke positively about the declaration in his Eighth Congress speech in January 2021, describing it as a success for the North and intimating that Pyongyang would take it as the starting point for future talks; the Biden team has also spoken positively about Singapore. If the two sides were to reiterate their support for this framework, ideally with North Korea making a low-cost gesture such as returning the remains of more U.S. soldiers lost in the Korean War (as envisaged in the declaration), there may be space for more substantial negotiations building on the agreement.

But if there is to be any progress at all, Pyongyang will need to avoid any provocation that goes beyond the parameters of the moratorium and thus leads Washington to decide talks will be fruitless, at least in the short term. This means North Korea must start by resisting the temptation to exploit the Ukraine crisis by testing its larger missiles that can reach the continental U.S. or even reviving its nuclear testing program. In short, it means ensuring that the birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung in April does not go off with too much of a bang.

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