BEIJING – The security environment in East Asia in 2020 is set to hinge on whether tensions between North Korea and the United States will escalate, as leader Kim Jong Un has accused Washington of missing a deadline set by Pyongyang for nuclear talks.
Concern is growing that Pyongyang will resume nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests to compel U.S. President Donald Trump to lift economic sanctions as he is eager to secure diplomatic achievements ahead of the presidential race in November.
Some observers, however, said Kim, whose primary goal is to ensure the continuation of the monolithic political system led by him, may refrain from actions that would pose direct threat to Washington, given that the risk of military conflict would increase.
If the United States shows no sign of coming to a compromise, Kim might try to strengthen ties with China and Russia, which have voiced willingness to loosen the sanctions that have apparently dragged down North Korea’s economy.
In that case, South Korea’s left-wing administration of President Moon Jae-in could again attempt to reach out to the North, possibly undermining relations between Washington and its ally Seoul as well as affecting the security structure in East Asia.
On Wednesday, North Korea’s state-run media quoted Kim as saying at the four-day plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea that ended Tuesday that North Korea will unveil a new weapon “in the near future.”
Criticizing Washington for putting North Korea’s security in jeopardy, Kim has also effectively reversed his commitment to discontinuing nuclear or ICBM tests, the media reported.
So far, Trump has emphasized Kim has promised with him that North Korea will not carry out such tests and he has repeatedly described the moratorium as his big achievement.
A diplomat in Beijing said Kim suggested Pyongyang will launch an ICBM that could reach the continental United States “in the next couple of months” for the first time since November 2017.
“In the run-up to the presidential election, Kim may think Trump does not want to be humiliated by North Korea. To extract concessions from Trump, Kim could decide to fire an ICBM soon.”
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo, echoed the view.
Kim “has leveraged provocations to gain concessions, instill fear and buy time. It is a strategy that has worked and so I expect he will continue with his brinkmanship to ensure regime survival,” Kingstone said.
In contrast, a diplomatic source said Kim has just called a “bluff,” adding he is aware that if he goes over the edge, Trump could really use U.S. military forces to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
“Trump is a joker in the pack. To get the credit, he could take military action. Kim is seeking security guarantees from the United States. I don’t think he will conduct nuclear or ICBM tests,” the diplomat added.
Struggling to proceed with negotiations on sanctions, Kim, who has pledged to rebuild the nation’s economy, would turn his eyes to China and Russia, which maintain friendly ties with North Korea but are divided over security issues with the United States.
“Improving its relationship with China and Russia is likely to be one of North Korea’s key foreign policy priorities for the foreseeable future,” said Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
“Pyongyang’s top leadership is too smart to waste the strategic opportunity to make the most out of rising and likely long-term major power competitions among the United States, Russia and China,” he added.
In December, China and Russia submitted a draft resolution at the U.N. Security Council to ease economic sanctions against North Korea on the grounds that it has suspended nuclear and ICBM tests for more than two years.
“Taking that into account, North Korea would not make a move that would frustrate China and Russia,” the diplomatic source said.
As for South Korea, if the North steps up provocations, Moon, who has extended an olive branch to Kim, would be forced to bolster security cooperation with the United States and Japan, some pundits said.
In 2019, ties between Seoul and Tokyo arguably plunged to the lowest point since normalization in 1965 in the wake of a string of South Korean court rulings the previous year ordering compensation for wartime labor.
South Korea has also been at odds with the United States over security matters, which foreign affairs experts suspect has made Trump distrust Moon.
Nevertheless, Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said, “The more provocative North Korea becomes, the more likely President Moon will want to show efforts to improve relations with the United States and Japan.”
“The decision to back down on GSOMIA could be an example of this,” he added, referring to the General Security of Military Information Agreement — a military intelligence-sharing pact between South Korea and Japan.
In late November, Tokyo and Seoul averted the termination of GSOMIA as South Korea conditionally backpedaled at the last minute on its earlier decision to scrap the agreement, citing security anxiety over the North.
A source familiar with the situation of South Korea, meanwhile, said if Beijing and Moscow get closer to Pyongyang, Seoul could join hands with them, aiming for a thaw in inter-Korean ties.
“South Korea may keep a distance from the United States and deepen relations with China and Russia, which challenge U.S. military presence in the region. That would be a bad scenario for the United States and Japan in security terms,” the source said.
Regarding Japan, a close U.S. ally, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed readiness to meet with Kim “without conditions” in hopes of making a breakthrough over the issue of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
But a Japanese government source said Kim has little intention to hold a summit with Abe, which would not bring benefits to North Korea at this juncture.