About the Author
View more articles by Joshua H. Pollack
Joshua H. Pollack
Joshua Pollack is a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and editor of the Nonproliferation Review.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
With the advantage of hindsight, the abrupt conclusion of the Hanoi summit in February 2019 was the beginning of the end for U.S.-North Korean diplomacy in the Trump era. In its immediate aftermath, according to a senior North Korean diplomat, Kim Jong Un “may have lost the will” to continue talking with the United States.
In April, Kim complained that the United States had not taken a serious approach to negotiations in Hanoi. In a major policy speech, he warned, “As wind is bound to bring waves, the U.S. open hostile policy toward the DPRK will naturally bring our corresponding acts… we will wait for a bold decision from the U.S. with patience till the end of this year but I think it will definitely be difficult to get such a good opportunity as the previous summit.”
An element of pessimism had crept into Kim’s public remarks even before his trip to Vietnam. In his 2019 New Year Address, he remarked, “if the United States does not keep the promise it made… we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.”
Analysts speculated about the nature of Kim’s “new way,” and what might happen in the new year. In the meantime, the sides reverted to their old patterns.
Combined military exercises resumed in the South. The North responded with short-range, “tactical” missile testing.
Then, just before working-level talks took place in Stockholm in early October, North Korea flew a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, which it deemed “strategic” in character. The talks themselves lasted a single day, capped by an acrimonious public statement from the North Korean delegation.
Kim telegraphed a major shift in policy soon afterward. In mid-October, DPRK media featured the North Korean leader and his entourage riding horses to the peak of Mt. Paektu, symbolically recalling Kim Il Sung’s guerilla warfare campaign against Japan.
The official news account described the need to advance the country’s economy “by its own efforts” and “in the face of all headwinds,” while hinting at “a great operation to strike the world with wonder again.”
By mid-November, Kim indicated that his end-of-year deadline had been moved up. A statement from a spokesman for the DPRK State Affairs Commission, which oversees the country’s government and is chaired by Kim himself, declared that the country “can no longer remain an onlooker” to military exercises in the South.
America’s failure to uphold its commitments meant that North Korea could no longer be bound by its own, and “there is no sufficient time left”: North Korea must “take countermeasures to contain” threats to its sovereignty, and “we no longer feel the need to exercise any more patience.” Time had run out.
The nature of Kim’s decision grew clearer at the end of the month. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seized on Japan’s condemnation of North Korea’s latest “tactical” missile test, declaring that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not distant future and under his nose.”
The barb was reminiscent of the June 2017 warning to Japan that preceded North Korea’s ICBM tests, and its two tests of intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japanese territory.
An element of pessimism had crept into Kim’s public remarks even before his trip to Vietnam
Just days later, a statement attributed to a senior diplomat reminded the United States that the end of the year was coming, adding that “it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift” it will get. This remark recalled Kim Jong Un’s comment after North Korea’s first flight-test of an ICBM on July 4, 2017: it had been a “package of gifts” to the United States in honor of Independence Day.
Preparations for new long-range flight tests may already be underway. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported in early December that the North Koreans have already begun paving large concrete pads suitable for stabilizing large mobile missile launchers.
Around this time, Kim Jong Un also took the opportunity to make another publicized visit to Mt. Paektu, this time bearing a grim message for his own people.
According to the official account, Kim explained that he had made the trip on horseback through the snow and cold to establish a “social atmosphere” that evokes the ordeals of the anti-Japanese guerillas. North Koreans, he concluded, must prepare for continued economic struggle under “the unprecedented blockade imposed by the imperialists.”
The next day, Thursday, December 5, a commercial satellite captured what appeared to be preparations for the testing of a rocket engine on the ground at North Korea’s primary space-launch site. Subsequent pictures indicated that a test had occurred sometime late on Saturday or early Sunday.
The test was publicized in a brief statement from a spokesman for the Academy of National Defense Science. Also known as the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, this organization is responsible for the development of missiles in North Korea. Its representatives feature prominently in news coverage of missile tests.
According to the statement, a “very important test took place” at the site “on the afternoon of December 7, 2019.” Its results “will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future.”
This phrasing suggests some qualitatively new advance in nuclear delivery systems, such as the testing of a solid-propellant ICBM.
Unable to secure victories at the bargaining table, Kim has turned back to his weapons scientists in search of additional leverage
Previously, the North Korean media has only used phrases about the country’s enhanced “strategic position” in connection with the testing of hydrogen bombs and ICBMs.
Starting in 2016, after the first test of what it called a hydrogen bomb, North Korea’s government declared that because it now was counted “among the advanced nuclear powers,” the United States should give up its “anachronistic hostile policy… facing up to [North Korea’s] strategic position and the trend of the times” (emphasis added by author).
Similarly, in late 2017, after testing a second hydrogen bomb and a series of ICBMs, Kim Jong Un heralded North Korea’s rapid emergence as “a strategic state capable of posing a substantial nuclear threat to the U.S.” (emphasis added by author). Few developments seem worthy of a comparable portrayal.
What this choice of language suggests is a judgment that North Korea, despite many achievements in building a strategic nuclear arsenal, has not yet succeeded in pushing American policy-makers beyond their tolerance for risk.
Unable to secure victories at the bargaining table, Kim has turned back to his weapons scientists in search of additional leverage. Exactly what they have in store will be clear soon enough.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES