Not A Surprise: North Korea Is Back To Publicizing Weapons Tests Overseen By Kim Jong Un

After five months of clumsy diplomacy, North Korea is using its position in the driver’s seat to move away from U.S. engagement.

byTyler Rogoway|
China photo


In what amounts to a major change in course, North Korea's state media has publicized a weapons test overseen by Kim Jong Un. The announcement is highly reminiscent of the period of near constant weapons tests and military installation visits that led up to a sudden thawing of tensions between North and South Korea prior to the Olympic games in early 2018. Not long after, the U.S. joined the detente, culminating in a laughably lopsided summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump in Singapore last June. Since then the Trump administration has claimed progress and put forward grand expectations from talks that seemed to be going nowhere fast. As we have written consistently, North Korea has not given any tangible proof that it intends to denuclearize. In fact, it hasn't even offered clear statements that allude to this possibility. The notion that they have has been at best the result of poor understanding about the situation and the North Korean regime's history and at worst straight-up misinformation.

Even as North Korea repeatedly offered nothing of consequence, the Trump Administration has worked to court Kim Jong Un's affection via canceling military exercising and ridiculously flattering language—the President of the United States said he fell in love with the North Korean dictator—as well as offerings of yet another photo-op summit between the two leaders. But even that didn't seem to work as North Korea began canceling key meetings with the U.S. in early November.  

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The entire thing has been a joke. There was no big multi-national comprehensive package put together for the summit that would have truly gauged North Korea's threshold to make a deal. There weren't even small but important steps, backed by hard deadlines, demanded of the North Koreans that would have either put them on a path towards denuclearization or force them to show their actual intentions without the long, and frankly, embarrassing wait. Instead, Pyongyang has been in the driver's seat with the U.S. seeming to be very much playing the whole thing by the seat of its pants. 

For a recap of where we stand editorially on this matter, you can read all the previous articles linked in this article or check out the entire tweet string below that I posted recently on the topic. But it is very clear that this whole process has been ridden off the rails for the U.S., although that assumes it was on the rails in the first place. 

For defenders of the Trump Administration's policy toward North Korea, the refrain has been the tired and somewhat misleading statement "well isn't it better than going back to them testing weapons," and even that now is probably on the brink of having zero relevance. And really, if we just went to them and said "here's the deal, if you talk to us, send flattering letters, and stop testing then we will look the other way begrudgingly on your nuclear program" I am sure they would have taken it!

As for the weapon involved in this test, we really don't know what it was. There is speculation that it could have been a new anti-tank or surface-to-air missile system, or another short-range guided weapon, but really, it doesn't matter all that much. What matters is North Korea wanted their old modus operandi to rear its ugly head again in the propaganda space and the world is taking notice. The readout from KCNA is posted below and the photo from the outing is posted as the banner image of this article.

KCNA Transcript

The statement lacks fiery anti-American rhetoric, but that is likely to come soon unless the U.S. acquiesces and lifts some sanctions, which would be an unbelievably stupid move and something I doubt the administration would do. There's also South Korea factor to deal with here as well with President Moon Jae In's administration being heavily invested in the North Korean engagement process, politically speaking. Clearly, Pyongyang will do whatever it can to drive a stake between Seoul and Washington D.C., but if things continue as they are, Moon may have to make a decision to side with the U.S. and return to a maximum pressure military campaign or to continue on a separate path with the Kim regime. 

The latter would make America's military role in the country more complex and ambiguous. In fact, Moon has already tried to decrease sanctions on North Korea, but that idea was swatted down by the U.S. and maligned internationally. 

Moon supposedly believes North Korea will crack under the brutal sanction regime in place on the country, but so far that seems like wishful thinking and it's not like the Kim regime hasn't weathered tough economic times before. With newly invigorated relations with China and Russia—two countries that are also increasingly at odds with the U.S.—sanctions relief will likely come under the table, one way or another, and there are already signs of that happening now.

Both leaders also recently blew off a New York Times piece about North Korea's illicit weapons programs. It didn't include any major new information necessarily, but it did underscore how North Korea has not let its foot off the gas when it comes to their nuclear weapons and missile programs. Once again, this isn't surprising as North Korea openly proclaimed that they would move to serial production of their nuclear weapons and delivery systems last Winter, but it does run counter to the idea that they are actually interested in denuclearizing or that they are starved of cash to the point of collapse. Even South Korea stated that North Korea has never agreed to stop any of these programs, but that hasn't stopped Moon from continuing to push for deeper engagement. 

So what's the answer here? There isn't a good one, but the options are pretty simple really. Either you stand fast and demand denuclearization and begin to put the military pressure back on in addition to the economic pressure in place, or you build a policy around an acknowledged reality that North Korea is a nuclear power and will remain that way going forward. Doing the latter would be a dramatic shift for the U.S. and its allies, but accepting that fact could lead to a moderation of the Kim regime and potential change within the Hermit Kingdom via foreign influence and investment. It could also lower tensions drastically, making Kim's nukes less of a threat. This could be predicated on a reformed engagement initiative aimed at freezing North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, but not eliminate their existing arsenal or delivery systems. 

The sad part is we really had one shot at making our best offer collectively with the world community at that summit in June and putting forward a comprehensive framework for the long-term denuclearization of North Korea. This could have started with a true declaration of Kim's arsenal and the freezing of his nuclear and missile programs verifiably. Included with this framework could have been substantial carrots and sticks that would make not moving on the path laid out truly against the self-interest of the Kim regime. At least then we could have said we did everything possible to make the standoff come to a peaceful conclusion while really help North Korea emerge from its failed state status and become a more peaceful actor on the world stage.

Instead, it was a squandered and hollow mess that offered nothing of substance to North Korea that could really push them in a better direction. Above all else, it was a clear signal that Trump's propensity for pocket dealings and basing foreign policy moves on the vapid illusion that it's all about his relationships with other world leaders is woefully inadequate when it comes to solving the world's most challenging problems.

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