North Korea’s sixth nuclear test has accelerated the roller coaster of tension on the Korean peninsula.
Following Sunday’s test explosion, Pyongyang announced the “perfect success” of a “hydrogen bomb” designed for use on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and sent a message to the outside world that its nuclear development cannot be halted.
Furthermore, just hours before the sixth test, North Korea showcased photos of a new miniaturized ICBM warhead on the front page of its state newspaper.
Through these two well-written scripts, it appears Pyongyang now hopes the world will accept Sunday’s nuclear test as evidence that North Korea has a new type of light weight weapon and, as a result, has become a credible nuclear power.
Until North Korea launched a volley of three short-range ballistic missiles and an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) over Japan, one after another on August 26 and 29, it had otherwise been anticipated that North Korea would seek to cool the level of tension on the Korean peninsula.
But since the sixth nuclear test was carried out in such a seemingly impulsive matter, we cannot but ask what North Korea will do next.
METHOD BEHIND THE MADNESS
In principle, Pyongyang’s goals can be roughly classified into three categories.
First of all, North Korea wants to send a message to Washington that it should not be viewed as a “chicken.”
The tensions on the Korean peninsula, which began to rapidly escalate with North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile launch on July 28, peaked on August 8 with President Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks and Pyongyang’s “Guam strike plan” remarks.
The apparent turnaround on August 14, when Kim Jong Un expressed his willingness to calm the situation and reconsider his Guam missile test plans, led the U.S. to interpret these signals positively and President Trump to declare that the North was starting to “respect” Washington.
But it is very likely that Kim Jong Un may have felt it looked like his country had blinked in the face of U.S. warnings. In other words, the DPRK is now trying to give the impression that Pyongyang is not scared and that they can withstand tensions until the U.S. changes its attitude.
Second, the recent developments could be part of a goal to encourage feelings of helplessness among the U.S. administration, in order to further the idea that Washington’s North Korea strategy simply doesn’t work.
North Korea wants to send a message to Washington that it should not be viewed as a “chicken”
If so, Pyongyang’s calculus may be to derive concessions or force early dialogue with the international community before the recently agreed United Nations Resolution 2371 comes into full practical effect. This could be possibly achieved by Pyongyang showing off its undiminished power in a major show of strength.
Thirdly, the window of time North Korea is operating within could be shrinking. China holds its 19th Communist Party Congress on October 18 and is concerned about the maintenance of its internal political structure.
Before Beijing demonstrates its full capacity for sanctions against North Korea, it is, therefore, necessary for Pyongyang to demonstrate its ability to gain an upper hand in dialogue.
AGAINST THE CLOCK
However, it should not be overlooked that, despite this disguised self-confidence, there is a sense of nervousness implicit in this nuclear test. The fact that North Korea has been increasing the pace of missile launches and nuclear tests since 2016 suggests that Pyongyang has its own deadline.
It is also worth noting that Kim Jong Un’s continued testing is not that of someone in a prominent position with all the time and resources they need, but instead of a desperate struggle to escape a tightening net.
Perhaps in the future Pyongyang will try to demonstrate the maximum capacity they can achieve before the reins of sanctions are tightened, though the launch of another ICBM can be hastened only if technical preparation is complete.
Recent developments could be part of a goal to encourage feelings of helplessness among the U.S. administration
In this regard, one thing to note in order to deal with Pyongyang is to effectively take back control of the issue of pace and timing. To do so, it is advantageous to move away from the “red-line” obsession that North Korea’s nuclear development should be stopped by a certain time or specific stage of development.
It is therefore not currently a good idea to pursue more powerful sanctions than those outlined in Resolution 2371, which have not yet had a chance to be validated. Patience in this manner could result in increasing the leverage over China and North Korea.
The message that we should finally be conveying to Pyongyang is that, regardless of their current level of nuclear development, they will ultimately never be recognized as a nuclear state. They must understand that current sanctions will not only continue, but will be strongly enforced, and the military strength of South Korea and the United States will increase.
North Korea should behave wisely: “the mills of gods grind slowly,” after all.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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