U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he risks losing “everything” through hostility toward the United States, a day after Pyongyang said it had carried out a major new weapons test.
“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way. He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to his landmark first summit with Kim in Singapore last year.
“He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November,” he wrote.
North Korea said a day earlier that it had carried out “a very important test” at its Sohae long-range rocket site, state media reported.
“The Academy of the National Defense Science of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea made a report on the results of the successful test of great significance to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” the short dispatch by the official Korean Central News Agency said, without revealing details of what exactly was tested Saturday.
“The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future,” it added, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The North has in the past used the Sohae site to test powerful engines for both missiles and rockets, and experts said commercial satellite imagery indicated that the country had likely resumed testing engines used to power satellite launchers at the site.
One set of images showed vehicles and objects that were likely used in the test at the Sohae site on Saturday, while another taken Sunday showed that most of the vehicles had been moved and the ground disturbed, apparently by the exhaust from the test.
Likely before/after images from @planet that suggest North Korea conducted a rocket engine test at Sohae. Vehicles and objects appear on December 7 to conduct the test. They are mostly gone on December 8, but the ground appears to have been disturbed by the exhaust from the test. pic.twitter.com/cqhh8ABywM
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) December 8, 2019
The U.N. bans North Korea from launching satellites because it is considered a test of ballistic missile technology. Saturday’s test was the first to take place at the site since March 2017, when the country was reported to have conducted a ground jet test of a new high-thrust rocket engine.
“Such testing is meant to improve military capabilities and to shore up domestic pride and legitimacy,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.
He said the North was avoiding violations of its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing for now, but was still improving the propulsion and precision of its missiles so that it can claim a credible nuclear deterrent.
Kim, Easley added, is well aware that U.S. surveillance flights and satellites are keeping a close tab on his country’s missile moves, and that the latest test was part of a gambit to further ratchet up tensions.
“So with the activity at Sohae, Pyongyang is also trying to raise international concerns that it may intensify provocations and walk away from denuclearization talks next year,” he said.
The test came ahead of a year-end deadline North Korea has imposed for the United States to drop its insistence on unilateral denuclearization. Pyongyang has warned it could take a “new path” amid the stalled talks with the United States. Top U.S. officials, however, have brushed off the deadline, set by Kim, as “artificial.”
“North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearize as promised,” Trump said on Twitter.
Asked in an interview if North Korea might be preparing to resume nuclear tests, U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that such a move “would be a mistake on the part of North Korea.”
Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, its sixth and most powerful, took place in September 2017.
“If North Korea takes a different path than the one it’s promised … we’ve got plenty of tools in the toolkit,” O’Brien said.
Trump told a news conference immediately following the Singapore summit last year that the North had pledged to dismantle one of its missile installations, which U.S. officials later identified as Sohae.
Satellite imagery weeks after that summit showed that the North had begun dismantling the site, but new imagery from March this year showed it had begun reconstructing it after the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February collapsed in a disagreement over the lifting of sanctions and the level of denuclearization.
Trump said Saturday that he doesn’t believe the North will undertake provocations that could hurt his re-election bid.
“I’d be surprised if North Korea acted hostilely,” Trump said at the White House. “He knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that. But we’ll have to see.”
The North successfully put a satellite into orbit for the first time in 2012, after numerous failed attempts, in a launch from the same site. In 2016, it successfully launched another satellite from Sohae.
At the United Nations, a statement released Saturday by Kim Song, the North’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that denuclearization had “already gone out of the negotiation table.”
Song accused the White House of pursuing a “hostile policy” toward the country “in its attempt to stifle it.” The ambassador also said Washington’s claims that it is engaged in a “sustained and substantial dialogue” with Pyongyang is solely for “its domestic political agenda.”
“We do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now and the denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiation table,” Song said.
Song’s statement was a response to Wednesday’s condemnation by six European countries of North Korea’s 13 ballistic missile launches since May. He accused the Europeans — France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Poland and Estonia — of playing “the role of pet dog of the United States in recent months.” He called their statement “yet another serious provocation” against North Korea’s “righteous measures of strengthening national defense capabilities.”
“We regard their behavior as nothing more than a despicable act of intentionally flattering the United States,” Song said.
The statement echoed a series of remarks from senior North Korean officials, including one that it is “up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select” as the year-end deadline for a “new approach” by the White House to stalled nuclear talks grows ever closer.
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 Mount 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 making key decisions about the country’s future.
In a sign that such a decision is in the cards, KCNA 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.
Experts have told The Japan Times that since a deal before the deadline is unlikely, Kim may try to keep the nuclear talks on Trump’s mind. One way of doing this, they said, could be firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile or rocket over Japan or launching a satellite.
“I don’t think a deal will be made in the near term,” said Yun Sun, with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. The North “will respond by testing, such as a satellite launch.”