Ominous Disengagement? Mixed Signals from North Korea’s Show of Force

July 2019 is a month of show of force by North Korea, with Kim Jong Un’s increased domestic public appearances to celebrate political events (the death anniversary of Kim Il Sung, War Victory day, local people’s assembly’s elections), and to conduct a most significant military inspection: the revelation of a newly-built submarine, capable of carrying multiple ballistic missiles. By 6th of August, North Korea has conducted four missile tests in 13 days (since 25th July), and the simultaneous signals it sent to the international community are worrying.

Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-Un at the DMZ did not restart the working group discussion on denuclearization. The effects of Summit Diplomacy and inter-Korean reconciliation had started to wear out, with both sides hurling accusations at each other for not honouring the spirit of Panmunjom, Singapore, and Pyongyang Declarations. North Korea’s absence at this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, where in the past had been the platform for North Korea to engage with major stakeholders for backdoor diplomacy (even at the height of North Korean provocations in the year of 2017), was also a worrying sign. Withdrawing from the only regional security forum that North Korea normally would attend signalled a worrying trend of North Korea’s ominous disengagement from bilateral or multilateral mechanisms, akin to Kim Jong Un’s strategy during the Obama’s era.

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The recent G20 Summit in Osaka is unlikely to be remembered for the 90 minute discussion between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, the leaders of the two largest military powers, even though they agreed to expand economic ties and instructed their foreign ministers to launch preparations for talks on the future of the New START, since the treaty is set to lapse in 2021, removing the last constraints to avoid an all-out arms race.

Another mixed signal from the Kim regime came from its messages to its domestic audience (which invariably also carried messages to the international audience). The lack of criticism of the US on the Victory Day signalled the intention to remain in dialogue with the US, while at the same time the regime repeated its warning that the “war games” should not be held. The same message was relayed again through the simultaneous release of statements by the North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Permanent Mission to the United Nations shortly after the fourth missile test. This was similar to Kim Jong Un’s 2019 New Year message, which called for continuing dialogue with the US, but warned that North Korea would embark on a “new path” which includes continuously developing its weapons and seeking new strategic partnership, if the US does not reciprocate in kind.

This statement also officially confirms that the series of missile tests was aimed at protesting US-ROK joint military exercises and the recently deployed F-35A in South Korea. Here, I would like to offer three main points to consider in light of the recent North Korea’s attempt at restarting missile provocations.

Firstly, the weak reciprocal step-by-step mechanism in US-North Korea denuclearization talks was loosely constructed around vague statements in the joint declarations without close monitoring and mutual consensus on the substance of obligations from both sides. The first frustration in the progress came after the Singapore Declaration where a concrete deal was not on the table until the Hanoi Summit was underway. The second frustration was the supposed agreed-upon Hanoi deal was cancelled by Trump’s last-minute ditch due to its domestic distraction of Mueller’s hearing. All of these are too familiar to long-time observers, with similar patterns of slow implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, and the reluctance to follow-up by the subsequent US administration, which failed the first denuclearization effort.

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The DPRK decided to remind the US that if the Americans do not want to continue the talks and make any reasonable concessions, Pyongyang could once again create considerable problems for Washington (and personally for President Trump).

Second, the US inconsistencies in the past and present have provided reasons for North Korea to renege promises and reverting to provocative patterns. For instance, Trump’s “no more war games” statement during his post-Singapore press conference was considered by North Korea as a high-level policy statement and commitment, overwriting the maintaining the importance of defense readiness in US-ROK alliance. There is also a high expectation from North Korea that the restart of current phase’s negotiation is predicated on a pre-Hanoi deal: partial sanctions relief for US nuclear inspection on Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Third, the casual dismissals by the US and Japan on earlier missile tests had emboldened North Korea to continue its brinkmanship tactics. The US should not easily dismiss short-range missile tests by North Korea, for its closest targets are the US bases in South Korea and Japan. Coupled with the newly-built North Korean Sinpo-class submarine that South Korean Ministry of National Defense has deemed as deployable at anytime, the US and Japan should take the upgrade of North Korea’s conventional capabilities seriously, and work closely with South Korea to deter any further military provocation by North Korea.

However, the current worrying trend of Japan-Korea rift to the point of strategic decoupling on all fronts (diplomatic, economic, and strategic), which coincides with North Korean weapon tests, will certainly damage US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation in managing North Korean threat. Japan and South Korea, by not setting the priority of alliance security cooperation above the bilateral disputes, will benefit North Korea, which seems to embark on the "new path" as expressed in Kim Jong-Un's New year address this year. If this is the indeed the outcome, the much-anticipated change in Korean Peninsula’s status quo will return to square one, while reaffirming North Korea’s reaffirmed survival strategy by continuous reliance on its nuclear weapons program while developing its economy with Chinese and Russian assistance.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.