The intensity of missile test launches by North Korea has been unprecedented: it has conducted four tests over the past two weeks – on July 25 and 31, August 2 and 6. This indicates that Pyongyang does not intend to sit idle while the United States and its allies not only increase their sanctions pressure on the DPRK, but have signalled that they haven’t abandoned a more traditional method of pressure – using force.
Washington’s actions include joint US-South Korean military exercises, launched on Monday in the south of the peninsula, the active phase of which will begin on August 11. Recent statements by the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with the demand for the United States to stop these military exercises, also expressed concern about the supplying of the latest weapons to South Korea. During US President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea in June of this year, it was reported that Seoul had purchased 40 new invisible F-35A fighters. American nuclear submarines have docked at South Korean ports, and there are plans to deploy Global Hawk high-altitude reconnaissance drones and even launch American ICBMs and anti-ballistic missiles, designed to intercept DPRK missiles.
Although the US and South Korea sufficiently reduced the scale of the manoeuvres, some annulled and renamed others with the aim of attracting as little attention as possible. Pyongyang does not accept assurances about the “defensive” nature of the exercises; North Korea considers them “aggressive,” and has considered how to respond to a “sudden pre-emptive strike” against the DPRK (according to an August 6 statement from the representative of the DPRK Foreign Ministry).
The North Koreans believe that both the current and previous exercises, both held after the 2018 summits, violate the obligations undertaken by the USA and South Korea regarding the cessation of joint military activities directed against the “dialogue partner”. Pyongyang warned that if “hostile military steps” continue, it could take a “different path,” which many foreign observers regarded as a hint of the possible resumption of nuclear weapons tests and ICBM launches.
However, the main thing, perhaps, is that the current course of action pursued by Washington and Seoul leads Pyongyang to the conclusion that the USA and Republic of Korea lack the “political will” to fulfil their promises to improve relations with the DPRK, as described in the joint summit documents of 2018, and continue to consider North Korea an “enemy.”
According to the North Korean foreign ministry, under the current conditions, the DPRK was “forced to take countermeasures to eliminate the potential direct threat to the state’s security.”
Moreover, Pyongyang wouldn’t mind playing according to the rules proposed by the United States and its allies. Since Americans and South Koreans each time claim that joint exercises are “defensive” and constitute an “important element of combat troops training”, the North Koreans make it clear that in such an environment, they are simply forced to “create, test and deploy powerful physical means for the defence of the country.”
At the same time, Pyongyang confirmed that its position “to resolve these issues through a dialogue remains unchanged.” Nevertheless, the North Koreans insist that “it is impossible to expect a constructive dialogue against the background of a game which imitates war.” Thus, the North Koreans have make it clear that they do not intend to negotiate during the period when such military exercises are held (they have responded this way more than once in the past). Thus, the beginning of US-North Korean contacts at the ad hoc level, which Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump agreed to at the June 30 meeting in Panmunjom, is delayed, at least until the end of the drills.
In any case, Pyongyang is not going to burn any bridges. North Koreans are careful enough to refrain from accusing Trump personally, and are concentrating blame on the South Korean leader, while also not calling him by name.
Washington was well-aware that in the past, the DPRK, as a rule, refused to negotiate during military exercises. Nevertheless, the drills began, allowing the North Koreans to quite gracefully blame the Americans for the delay of the negotiations, even when the American officials, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have tirelessly repeated in recent weeks that their delegation is ready to meet and only is waiting for a signal from Pyongyang.
The reaction to North Korean launches in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo is characteristic. While Japan was most concerned about the actions of the DPRK, in Seoul, with an eye on Washington, at first searched for a suitable name for “flying objects” launched in the DPRK and stubbornly refrained from recognising them as “missiles”. In the end, a representative of the Ministry of Unification of South Korea proposed to convene a joint military committee, which the North and South Korea agreed to establish during the third summit in September 2018 in Pyongyang in order to discuss confidence-building measures in the military field “to prevent an unnecessary arms race.”However, the most remarkable was the position of the United States. Donald Trump generally preferred to ignore the DPRK’s latest missile launches as unimportant, tweeting that “these missile tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there discussion of short range missiles when we shook hands.” Commenting on the North Korean launches, John Bolton, US national security adviser, confirmed that the American side is “very closely following” them, but is still ready for the planned contacts. Finally, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, August 7, said at a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab that the United States strategy on North Korea has not changed, despite a number of test missiles launched by Pyongyang, and that he expected negotiations to begin in the coming weeks. In general, as they say, all options are still on the table.