TOKYO/SEOUL – North Korea hasn’t fired a missile for 60 days, but that may have more to do with its own winter training cycle than with Pyongyang easing off on provocations.
Since Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, only five of the isolated nation’s 85 rocket launches have taken place in the October-December quarter, according to The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ North Korea Missile Test Database.
The Korean People’s Army regularly enters its training cycle every winter “and getting ready for it involves a calm before the storm,” said Van Jackson, a strategy fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
“Fall is the harvest season, and a lot of military labor is dedicated to agricultural output when not in war mode; inefficient, but it’s the nature of the North Korean system,” said Jackson, a former U.S. Department of Defense adviser. “It’s a routine, recurring pattern, which means we should expect a surge in provocations in the early months next year.”
North Korea’s last launch was on Sept. 15, when the isolated state fired its second missile over Japan in as many months. That missile that flew far enough to put the U.S. territory of Guam in range.
Joseph Yun, the United States’ top North Korean official, was reported by The Washington Post as saying on Oct. 30 that if the regime halted nuclear and missile testing for about 60 days, it would be the signal Washington needs to resume direct dialogue with Pyongyang. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday denied the U.S. had any such window.
Yun arrived in South Korea on Tuesday, a visit that comes as hopes rise for an easing of tensions on the peninsula in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit and a lull in missile testing.
Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, will meet with South Korean and international officials, according to the U.S. State Department, although there is no indication his visit will include talks with the North.
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Yun is scheduled for talks with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, on Friday on the sidelines of an international conference on disarmament, jointly hosted by the ministry and the United Nations on the resort island of Jeju.
South Korea-born Yun has been at the heart of reported direct diplomacy in recent months with the Kim regime.
Using the so-called New York channel, he has been in contact with diplomats at Pyongyang’s United Nations mission, a senior State Department official said earlier this month.
Even as Trump called talks a waste of time, Yun has quietly tried to lower the temperature in a dangerous nuclear standoff in which each side shows little interest in compromise.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Oct. 30, Yun reportedly said that if the North halts nuclear and missile tests for about 60 days, it would be a sign that Washington needs to seek a restart of dialogue with Pyongyang.
Some analysts say it is too early to read much into the break in testing, which is the longest lull so far this year.
And there is no sign that the behind-the-scenes communications have improved a relationship vexed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests as well as Trump’s heated statements.
During his visit to Seoul last week, Trump warned North Korea he was prepared to use the full range of U.S. military power to stop any attack, but in a more conciliatory appeal than ever before he urged Pyongyang to “make a deal” to end the nuclear standoff.
Trump also urged North Korea to “do the right thing” and added that: “I do see some movement,” though he declined to elaborate.
While his comments seemed to reassure many in South Korea, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called Trump a “destroyer of the world peace and stability,” and said his “reckless remarks” only made the regime more committed to building up its nuclear force.
Trump muddied the water later on his Asia visit by Tweeting that North Korean leader Kim had insulted him by calling him “old” and said he would never call Kim “short and fat.”
He also said “it would be very, very nice” if he and Kim became friends.
“It is indeed noteworthy that the president, at several junctures, seemed to open the door to negotiations with North Korea,” said David Pressman, a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner who helped lead North Korea sanctions negotiations as ambassador to the United Nations under former President Barack Obama.
“However, it is entirely unclear if the president’s suggestions are reflective of a strategic shift or merely reflective of what the last person he happened to speak with about North Korea said before the president made those comments.”