What does Kim Jong Un want with all these missile tests? Talks, perhaps?
If North Korea wanted to enter into negotiations, it might decide that it first had to gain the upper hand in a hurry, and it might conclude that the best way to do that was through shooting off one missile after another in rapid succession.
As an explanation for all these launches that North Korea is conducting — three ballistic missiles launched last month, the salvo of cruise missiles launched Thursday — it seems at first blush like a stretch.
But a growing number of analysts with backgrounds in talking to North Korean officials wonder whether the relentless pace of the North’s missile testing is designed to get Kim Jong Un’s regime into its strongest bargaining position before economic sanctions force it to return to the negotiating table.
“This is like taekwondo,” said Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, referring to the Korean martial art.
“This is the part where your opponent engages the spiral kick to the head with a bloodcurdling scream to put you off balance at the outset,” said Hayes, who has been dealing with North Koreans for more than 20 years.
Kim has made it clear that he is determined to acquire a missile capable of reaching the continental United States. He has overseen the launch of a dozen missiles in the past four months, compared with 16 fired during the entirety of his father’s 17-year reign.
After the latest launch, Kim said that “the Yankees should be very worried” about the North Korean capability.
But beyond the bombastic pronouncements and technical progress, some analysts see familiar signs that North Korea is ratcheting up the tensions before being forced to talk on American terms.
“The further they advance towards having an operational arsenal, the more they can get from outside powers just for a freeze when they return to the negotiating table,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator with the North and former national security adviser.
With more and more sanctions being piled on North Korea, it is just a matter of time until the pressure becomes unbearable, he said.
“So before they’re drawn back to the negotiating table, they have every reason to speed up their technical development,” Chun said.
Diplomacy still seems a long way off.
The Trump administration has been talking about exerting “maximum pressure” on North Korea, and last weekend Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praised China’s “renewed commitment” to leaning on North Korea. Senior administration officials have repeatedly said that the conditions for talks with North Korea are not right.
At “Track 2” talks in Sweden over the weekend, North Korean representatives told U.S. experts and former officials that they were not interested in discussing an end to their missile or nuclear programs. This was the latest of several periodic meetings with American experts and former officials to send messages to the administration in Washington and to test ideas. The State Department knows about the meetings, but officials say the talks have no impact.
“The underlying North Korean message throughout our discussions was that ‘denuclearization is totally off the table and there is nothing that either the U.S. or South Korea could offer that could achieve denuclearization,’ ” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, who participated in the weekend’s talks.
Negotiations with North Korea, even when they do happen, do not have a good record of success.
“Six-party” talks in 2005 led Pyongyang to agree to dismantle its nuclear program in return for economic assistance and security guarantees, but the deal collapsed in 2009 when North Korea launched what it said was a satellite. The international community said it was part of an intercontinental ballistic missile program.
In 2013, Washington and Pyongyang tried to forge a new deal, known as the “Leap Day” agreement because it was announced Feb. 29, under which North Korea promised no more nuclear tests or long-range missile launches, while Washington offered new humanitarian assistance. That deal lasted only 16 days before North Korea said it was getting ready to launch another “satellite” — which it duly did.
Despite this poor record, there is still general agreement that this sort of diplomacy is the least-bad option for dealing with North Korea.
And there have been signs of qualified willingness from both sides.
President Trump, who prides himself on his negotiating skills honed during decades in business, said last month that he would be “honored” to meet Kim, even labeling him a “smart cookie.” A top North Korean diplomat, after talks with former U.S. officials in Norway last month, said the Kim regime would be willing to talk “if the conditions are there.”
Recent efforts to resume official talks have broken down because of various preconditions, including Washington’s insistence that there can be no talks unless denuclearization is on the agenda, and Pyongyang’s insistence on instead discussing a peace treaty — a document that would lead to calls for the United States to remove all its troops from South Korea while leaving the North as a nuclear state.
At some point Kim could decide that he is in a strong enough bargaining position, said Gary Samore, who served as President Barack Obama’s top nonproliferation official and is at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “Then he can agree to a test moratorium, just like he did with the Leap Day deal,” he said.
Adding to North Korea’s incentive to talk: the election last month of a pro-engagement president in South Korea. Moon Jae-in has promised to resume talks with Pyongyang if it will help solve the nuclear problem.
“Kim Jong Un could agree to take a pause [from testing] and find out what kind of a deal he could get from Moon, who is clearly more willing to address North Korea’s economic interests and security concerns, and to see what Trump, with all his big talk, has on offer,” Samore said.
That could pave the way for further talks. “Frankly, I don’t think it will get very far, but at least it will calm the current situation and slow down the program,” he said.
Oh Joon, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations until last year, agreed that talks would at least stop North Korea from making progress on its missile program.
“The Moon Jae-in government will jump at the opportunity for talks,” Oh said. “And for Trump, if he can bring North Korea back to denuclearization negotiations, he can say, ‘See, I have achieved what Obama couldn’t in eight years.’ It’s good for everyone.”
The question now is what does Kim Jong Un think is enough in terms of his bargaining position.
“If he thinks he needs a long-range capability in order to negotiate with the U.S. on strong terms,” Samore said, “then we may have years of testing ahead of us.”