Insults and threats are again being hurled between the United States and North Korea as tensions soar to heights unseen in the last two years ahead of a unilateral year-end deadline set by Pyongyang for progress in nuclear talks.
While North Korea has deployed some of its most senior officials to lay into the White House — including directly targeting President Donald Trump — over Washington’s position in the stalled nuclear talks, the U.S. has requested that the United Nations Security Council meet Wednesday to discuss a “comprehensive update on recent developments” and the possibility of a fresh provocation by Pyongyang.
“In light of recent events on the Korean Peninsula and the President’s Dec. 5 meeting with the Permanent Representatives to the U.N. Security Council, the State Department is instructing USUN to propose to have the U.N. Security Council discussion on North Korea this week include a comprehensive update on recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, including recent missile launches and the possibility of an escalatory DPRK provocation,” a State Department spokesperson told The Japan Times.
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The move by Washington — the first time it has called for a Security Council meeting on North Korea since Pyongyang restarted the test-firing of short-range ballistic missiles in May — could be a sign of a toughening U.S. stance toward the North.
But the Trump administration is at the same time keeping its options open, with the White House killing off plans to convene a meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday, Human Rights Day, to spotlight abuses and atrocities committed by the North.
Starting in 2014, after a U.N. panel of inquiry issued a scathing report on the systemic and widespread rights abuses in North Korea, the council began discussing human rights each December. In 2018, after Trump’s landmark summit with leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, the meeting did not take place, but it had been planned for this year.
The North has lambasted any discussions of rights abuses in the country, calling them an affront to the Kim regime.
The shift from a rights-oriented meeting to one discussing the North’s nuclear and missile programs appeared designed to signal a desire by Trump to salvage the now-faltering two-year diplomatic effort to convince North Korea to abandon its nukes and try to strike a deal with Kim before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
However, it remains unclear if either side is truly interested in such a deal.
“There’s a chance for a fig leaf that disguises the underlying issues and keeps the diplomatic process alive, but the signals from the United States and North Korea alike don’t seem to suggest the flexibility necessary for any sort of major substantive agreement,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korea issues.
Kim announced a year-end deadline in April for the United States to drop its insistence on unilateral denuclearization, warning that the North could take a “new path” amid the stalled talks with the United States. Top U.S. officials, however, have brushed off the deadline as “artificial.”
Beyond the spate of missile tests, a senior North Korean official threatened earlier this month to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the United States, a remark that stirred concern that Pyongyang planned to escalate its confrontation with Washington.
On Sunday, the North upped the ante, announcing that it had conducted a “very important test” at one of its long-range rocket sites. South Korea’s defense chief said Tuesday that the test had been of a rocket engine.
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) December 10, 2019
The U.N. bans North Korea from using ballistic missile technology, including rocket engines. And any launch of a rocket, possibly under the guise of putting a satellite into orbit, would threaten to derail the detente between Trump and Kim and push already rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula even higher.
In recent days, the North has also unleashed its attack dogs on the U.S., with Kim Yong Chol, the infamous former spy chief and negotiator who traveled to Washington to meet Trump twice last year, calling the American president a “heedless and erratic old man” on Monday.
In a statement carried in official media, the longtime aide to the North Korean leader vowed that the regime would not cave to U.S. pressure to give up its nuclear arsenal.
“Trump has too many things that he does not know about the DPRK,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Yong Chol as saying.
“We have nothing more to lose.”
His statement came after Trump on Sunday played down warnings from the regime, saying in a tweet that Kim Jong Un was “too smart and has far too much to lose” to renew hostility with the United States.
“This naturally indicates that Trump is an old man bereft of patience,” said Kim Yong Chol. “As he is such a heedless and erratic old man, the time when we can not but call him a ‘dotard’ again may come.”
The latest North Korean statements hint that Kim Jong Un’s view of Trump “may change,” if the U.S. leader does not shift gears.
“If the U.S. has no will and wisdom, it can not but watch with anxiety the reality in which the threat to its security increases with the passage of time,” Kim Yong Chol said.
Later Monday, another top North Korean official delivered a statement saying that Kim Jong Un would make his “final judgment and decision” on the situation at the end of the year.
“Trump would be well advised to quit abusive language which may further offend the chairman,” Ri Su Yong, a vice chairman of the ruling party’s powerful Central Committee said, according to KCNA.
Oba, the former State Department official, said that it appears at the moment that Pyongyang “is either trying to pressure the United States to negotiate on its terms, or worse, laying the groundwork for Washington to take the blame for an escalation of tension after the New Year.”
Still, he said it was important to note that the North has a stake in maintaining the diplomatic process to some degree as it seeks to preserve some leverage over Trump while he gears up for his 2020 re-election campaign and touts his North Korean diplomatic initiative as one of his accomplishments.
“So, while we might see North Korea step up the level of its missile tests, I also think North Korea may find a way to preserve some space for maneuver even while raising tensions,” Oba said.