Was North Korea’s latest missile launch an olive branch in disguise?

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Staff Writers

North Korea’s test-firing Wednesday of its most powerful missile to date has left experts wondering what may be in store for Northeast Asia and the United States, with some saying the unusual lengths taken by Pyongyang to stress its commitment to world peace in its latest statement point to the potential for a breakthrough in a long-stalled effort at dialogue.

Soon after the launch of what the regime described as a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, the North Korean government issued a statement boasting that the regime had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”

Pyongyang then said its pursuit of the “strategic weapon” had been intended to “defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy,” and emphasized that it would “not pose any threat to any country and region as long as the interests of the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) are not infringed upon.”

“The DPRK will make every possible effort to serve the noble purpose of defending peace and stability of the world,” it added.

Atsuhito Isozaki, an associate professor at Keio University who specializes in North Korean politics, said the latest statement signaled a departure from similar declarations by Pyongyang in the past, where the emphasis, according to the professor, was by and large placed on its determination to continue its nuclear and missile development program in the future.

“Granted that they’ve always claimed their missile program was for world peace, but what stands out this time around is their claim that they have now officially accomplished their goal — not to mention the fact there was no reference to their future pursuit” of weapons development, Isozaki said.

“This potentially means they have reached a certain level of closure military-wise,” he added.

The closure, he said, may prompt Pyongyang to shift more toward boosting the country’s economy under its self-declared “byungjin” policy — the “parallel development of the economy and defense capabilities” — signaling the possibility the regime may now start taking the importance of diplomacy and dialogue more seriously.

Narushige Michishita, professor of international relations at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, also said the latest statement could be interpreted as a sign that the regime seeks dialogue. But at the same time, he said, there may be another motive at play.

“It’s possible that Pyongyang is floating its willingness to talk to manipulate the public sentiment here against pressure and therefore sow divisions,” Michishita said. “In that sense, I think the statement is very carefully phrased.”

Responding to Wednesday’s launch, the U.S., for its part, clarified its position that it is open to talks with North Korea.

“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”

But some experts have taken a more pessimistic approach about the prospects of dialogue.

Tillerson’s assertion that Washington embraces a “peaceful” resolution of the current nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula does not offer much comfort, according to Van Jackson, a senior lecturer of political science and international relations at University of Wellington, New Zealand.

“I think Tillerson is irrelevant. He doesn’t know what he means when he uses the word ‘diplomacy,’ and he’s consistently off-message with others in the administration — most notably Trump and (National Security Adviser H.R.) McMaster,” said Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

McMaster, he said, shares the same sentiment as Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said in an interview with CNN after the launch that “at the end of the day, the president has to pick between homeland security and regional stability” and Trump is “picking America over the region” — indicating the U.S. leader may be inclined to go ahead with a pre-emptive strike on the North to protect America from any potential strike by a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Trump and his allies “all believe North Korea hasn’t yet crossed the Rubicon and can still be attacked without starting nuclear Armageddon,” Jackson said. “They’re wrong, and even if there’s a chance they’re right, it’s not worth the gamble.”

Staff writer Daisuke Kikuchi contributed to this report