Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

As nuclear talks falter, next move for North Korea's Kim may be missile test over Japan

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Kim Jong Un is back in the saddle — literally — and apparently ready to make a decision on what kind of “Christmas present” North Korea will offer the U.S. as a year-end deadline for progress in nuclear talks with Washington approaches.

And one option for Kim could be firing a nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan.

“If negotiations with the U.S. go south, there is a strong possibility of more flagrant provocations in the new year — such as another IRBM test over Japan’s airspace,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

In an apparent sign of resolve amid the nuclear standoff, Kim visited his regime’s most sacred site, snowy Mount Paektu, state media reported Wednesday, “to instill the indefatigable revolutionary spirit” of the mountain into North Koreans “despite the unprecedented blockade and pressure,” a reference to suffocating U.S. and international sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Photos accompanying the report showed Kim at the summit of Paektu for the second time in two months, leading a large entourage touring “revolutionary battle sites” atop a white steed. Kim and his predecessors have in the past visited the mountain ahead of key decisions on the country’s future.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits battle sites in the area of Mount Paektu in this undated picture released Wednesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits battle sites in the area of Mount Paektu in this undated picture released Wednesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

In a sign that such a decision is in the cards, the official Korean Central News Agency said shortly after the Paektu report that North Korea will hold a plenary session of its ruling party’s powerful central committee later this month. It said the meeting would be held “in order to discuss and decide on crucial issues … and the changed situation at home and abroad.”

At the last such meeting in April, Kim called on the United States and President Donald Trump to make a “courageous decision” by the end of the year and present the North with a “new way of calculation” in the nuclear talks.

The negotiations between the U.S. and the North have effectively been deadlocked since working-level talks in early October broke down. Since then, senior North Korean officials have repeatedly criticized the U.S. over its position in the talks, including an ominous warning Tuesday that it is “up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select” as the deadline looms.

Joshua Pollack, a North Korea missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said he believes the North has “moved on” from making specific demands of the U.S. and is instead preparing for its next steps.

“I tend to read the recent barrage of public warnings as part of an effort to shape international opinion about who is to blame for the failure of diplomacy to bear fruit,” he said, noting Pyongyang’s silence on Washington’s canceled joint military exercises with Seoul and the snubbing of Trump’s appeal for a third summit with Kim.

Whatever Kim’s next move is, this month’s plenary meeting could be the forum where he outlines — and gets rubber-stamp approval for — the direction he plans to take his country in 2020.

Precedent suggests a major announcement is likely to emerge from the meeting.

At a party plenum in March 2013, the North announced its byungjin policy of simultaneous military and economic development, and in April last year, Kim used a meeting to declare he was shifting his focus to the country’s tattered economy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits battle sites in the area of Mount Paektu in this undated picture released Wednesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits battle sites in the area of Mount Paektu in this undated picture released Wednesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

But despite the ramped up rhetorical push by the North reminding the U.S. of the impending deadline, the chance of a substantial nuclear deal by the year-end is slim, several experts told The Japan Times in a series of interviews.

“There’s no chance of a meaningful negotiation before Christmas,” said Van Jackson, a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and former Pentagon official.

“Contrary to all the hype since 2018, the door to a credible nuclear deal was never open.”

According to Jackson, this has been due to both sides failing to manage the other’s expectations. The North, he said, appeared to believe it could get sanctions relief without giving up crucial components of its nuclear program, while Trump continues to stress that Kim agreed to denuclearize — including during a news conference Tuesday — at the pair’s landmark Singapore summit in June last year.

Jackson said this “simply isn’t true.”

“What negotiations have been probing for the past year or so is whether a mostly symbolic and highly fallible deal was available.”

But even that now appears unlikely.

“The bottom line for Kim has been and remains some unilateral sanctions relief,” Jackson said.

In the event the deadline passes without any kind of progress, some experts have said Kim could end his country’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting U.S. cities.

But a more likely option for getting Trump’s attention might be to again lob an IRBM over Japan, much like it did on two occasions in 2017, prompting the government to send out alarms on cellphones and interrupt television programs to urge residents to take cover.

Indeed, a top North Korean Foreign Ministry official pointed to such a scenario Saturday, lambasting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an “idiot” and warning that Japan could again see “a real ballistic missile” overflying the country “in the not distant future.”

Pollack said that despite Pyongyang’s penchant for rhetorical flair, this warning “should be taken seriously.”

“We haven’t seen a message like that since mid-2017,” he said, adding that the “Christmas present” barb “makes me think that missile testing over Japan may be a real possibility again — maybe even before the end of the year.”

This would be a natural step for Pyongyang as it climbs the ladder of escalation after its spate of short-range weapons tests earlier this year. Those tests, and the lack of a strong response by the Trump administration, have left Tokyo and Seoul concerned about Washington’s commitment to their security, as Kim continues to chip away at the U.S. alliances with the two.

A large display screen shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump during a symposium in Seoul in June. | AP
A large display screen shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump during a symposium in Seoul in June. | AP

Those concerns are expected to persist as Trump begins to focus more intently on his 2020 re-election campaign and as impeachment proceedings gather steam.

“If the White House continues to ignore North Korea as a threat, South Korea under the current president won’t be too concerned, but Japan will,” Jackson said.

The problem for Tokyo, he said, is that it doesn’t have much of a plan B.

“Until or unless the U.S. plainly, clearly abandons them, they cannot make dramatic changes to their defense capabilities or doctrine” Jackson said of constitutional and alliance constraints Tokyo is bound by.

Still, it’s unlikely that Trump — even if he is preoccupied with his campaign and impeachment proceedings — would be able to turn a blind eye to longer-range missile or nuclear tests, having drawn a clear red line for those.

“He would have to turn some attention back to the peninsula to ratchet back tensions or take military action,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp.

“Trump has said that short-range tests — even though they can range South Korea and Japan and help improve Pyongyang’s longer-range capabilities — basically aren’t worthy of U.S. attention,” Grossman noted. “By this standard, it would be very tough to ignore a resumption of 2017-level brinkmanship in 2020.”

Asked Tuesday about the lack of progress on the nuclear issue, Trump, known for his off-the-cuff remarks, revived the threat of military action, despite emphasizing his “good relationship” with Kim.

“We have the most powerful military we have ever had and we are by far the most powerful country in the world, and hopefully we do not have to use it. But if we do, we will use it. If we have to, we will do it,” he said during a meeting in London ahead of a summit with NATO members.

And while experts interviewed unanimously ruled out the possibility of planned military action by the U.S. — a move that simulations have found would devolve into war and cost untold numbers of lives — Trump could ultimately find himself backed into a corner and forced to respond.

“Kim Jong Un is maneuvering him into a situation where he has to return to ‘fire and fury’ or grant sanctions relief,” Jackson said. “Kim’s bet is that his nuclear deterrent prevents Trump from going back to ‘fire and fury.'”

Added Jackson: “Military action isn’t on the table as a deliberate decision right now, but the risks of conflict are still there in Korea all the same.”