North Korea celebrates year of ‘self-defence’ successes, but ties with US lowest since Korean war
In the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency, an American scholar quietly met North Korean officials and relayed the message that the new administration in Washington appreciated an extended halt in the North’s nuclear and missile tests.
But the North Koreans responded by saying the nearly four-month period of quiet wasn’t a sign of conciliation and supreme leader Kim Jong-un would order tests whenever he wanted. As if to emphasise the point, two days later Pyongyang launched a new type of medium-range missile, ending Trump’s brief honeymoon.
The February launch heralded a year of escalating tensions that have left the US and North Korea closer to hostilities than at any time since the Korean war ended in 1953.
In a review of the country’s nuclear weapon and missile tests this year, the official Korean Central News Agency said North Korea had taken steps for “bolstering the capabilities for self-defence and pre-emptive attacks with nuclear force” in the face of a continued “nuclear threat and blackmail and war drills” by the US and its “vassal forces”, referring to regular military drills between the United States and South Korea.
“Do not expect any change in [North Korea’s] policy. Its entity as an invincible power can neither be undermined nor be stamped out … As a responsible nuclear weapons state, will lead the trend of history to the only road of independence,” KCNA said.
“Pyongyang and Washington are caught in a vicious cycle of action and reaction,” Korea analyst Duyeon Kim wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “If nothing happens to break the cycle, it will continue until one side either stands down, which is very unlikely, or, far worse, takes military action.”
Before his inauguration, Trump tweeted about the prospect of Kim having a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike America: “It won’t happen!” Almost a year later, and after an onslaught of new economic sanctions and US military threats, Pyongyang appears to be closer to its goal.
At the same time, US strategy seems muddled. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently offered unconditional talks with North Korea only to be quickly shot down by the White House, where not only Trump has talked up the possibility of military confrontation. National security adviser H.R. McMaster also has warned the potential for war is “increasing every day”.
Before Christmas, the administration unveiled a new security strategy that offered few answers, vaguely spoke of “improving options” to get the inscrutable North to abandon its nuclear weapons.
By the administration’s own admission, its official North Korea policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” has not included much engagement.
“The White House and the secretary of state seem unable to coordinate on even the most basic elements of a common strategy,” wrote Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California, San Diego.
After a rash of failed missile tests in 2016, North Korea has conducted more than 20 missile launches since Trump came to office. It also tested what it described as a hydrogen bomb – an underground blast so big it registered as a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Then in late November, it test-fired a new intercontinental missile in the clearest demonstration yet that all of America was within striking range.
Trump has compounded the issue. While he has presented his own threats as proof of an America that won’t be intimidated, critics at home and abroad have argued that he has elevated the risk of nuclear conflict through his personal insults to Kim.
Trump has called Kim “short and fat” and “a sick puppy”. At the UN in September, he lampooned Kim as “Rocket Man … on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime”. Kim replied by calling Trump “mentally deranged” and a “dotard”. North Korea’s foreign minister then warned of a possible atmospheric nuclear test – done by no nation since 1980.
Diplomacy isn’t dead, however. The Trump administration was quick to restore a backchannel for talks between the State Department and North Korea that disappeared in president Barack Obama’s final months. The US envoy on North Korea, Joseph Yun, secretly met North Korean officials in Oslo in May to press for the release of Americans imprisoned in Pyongyang.
As 2018 beckons, the question now is whether the North will conduct more tests until it can confidently deploy its new long-range missile, and whether it will detonate a nuclear weapon over the Pacific to demonstrate once and for all its capabilities. That would dramatically increase the chances of war.
The Trump administration sees the time for diplomacy shrinking. Tillerson said in December he hopes sanctions get North Korea to negotiate.
“Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to do this,” Tillerson said of all the pressure. “We’d just go straight to the military option.”