North Korea’s avoidance of nuclear test could herald a return to diplomacy

by Takuya Karube

Kyodo

North Korea’s decision not to carry out a sixth nuclear test or a major missile launch in connection with its key anniversaries in April, contrary to widespread predictions, could herald a return to behind-the-scenes diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has not shown any intention to drop its mantra that all options, including a military strike, are on the table.

But a statement released by the U.S. administration on Wednesday after an extraordinary classified briefing on North Korea for the entire Senate made no specific reference to military options.

It instead highlighted that Trump’s approach aims “to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners.”

A major focus is how the new U.S. administration will deal with North Korea from now on, and whether there will be even a slight adjustment to its approach after tensions have escalated to a level described by Pyongyang as close to “the brink of war.”

The U.S. statement said the additional pressure to be put on North Korea will be aimed at persuading Kim Jong Un’s regime “to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue.”

A senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “We have timelines in mind for what we would like to see change, but it’s mainly event-driven.”

“It depends on the actions of North Korea. It depends on the actions of others whose help we’re looking for in resolving this problem and moving toward the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the official said.

Not all North Korea watchers had expected there would be another nuclear test around the 105th anniversary of its late state founder’s birth on April 15 or the 85th anniversary of its armed forces on Tuesday.

Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, was one such voice, saying it was “too risky for Pyongyang to clearly cross the red line.”

In the face of direct U.S. military threats, it is perhaps no wonder that North Korea has opted out of a banned nuclear explosion or a new type of ballistic missile launch.

Putting its military might on display, the United States ordered the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and three other warships in April to steam toward the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula.

The action was initiated between a U.S. cruise missile strike against Syria and the dropping of its most powerful nonnuclear bomb on Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.

“The world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech in mid-April in South Korea. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve.”

For its own part, North Korea too has signaled that it remains open to negotiations.

A flurry of statements issued through the country’s official media following the dispatch of the U.S. Navy battle group and the two military strikes in April have maintained a bellicose tone.

But if read closely, most of them hinge on a warning that North Korea will inevitably resort to military means if attacked or if its sovereignty is threatened.

Some experts on the North Korea issue have noted the country’s move to re-establish the Diplomatic Commission of the Supreme People’s Assembly, which was announced three days before the 105th birth anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung.

The committee is headed by Ri Su Yong, a vice chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, who is the top official in charge of overseeing foreign affairs. Other members include Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister and its point man on nuclear issues, and Ri Son Gwon, head of its state-level agency dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

The revival of the panel, endorsed during this year’s parliamentary session, is seen by the experts as a possible sign of North Korea’s preparedness for a new diplomatic offensive against South Korea and the United States.

North Korea is well aware that South Korea will elect a new president on May 9, which could lead to a dramatic foreign policy shift.

The election is heavily tilted toward candidates from liberal parties in the wake of the corruption and abuse-of-power scandal that ousted conservative President Park Geun-hye, who had been very tough on Pyongyang.

Though the race is tight, Moon Jae-in, the front-runner in polls who is from the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea, has expressed his willingness to seek early talks with North Korea.

Bong of Yonsei University said he expects “the Trump administration will hold a military option for a while in order to have Beijing move first in taking putative actions.”

Through its official media, China has hinted at the possibility of cutting off its oil supply to North Korea if it conducts another nuclear test in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Gasoline prices have risen sharply in Pyongyang over the past week, according to locals, though it is unclear if the change is connected with pressure from China.

In exchange for refraining from the test, Bong said, “North Korea may want to bargain with Beijing and Washington that all related parties must agree on opening a multilateral dialogue.”