In the three years since the world came closer to nuclear catastrophe than it had in years, North Korea’s place in the American and Japanese political consciousness has dissipated, with the response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic taking center stage less than four months before the U.S. presidential election.
Although verbal threats of “fire and fury” and flights over or near Japan of missiles thought capable of carrying nuclear bombs as far as the continental U.S. have all but vanished, Pyongyang still retains its ever-growing and improving nuclear arsenal — something the North has gone out of its way to highlight.
On Sunday, North Korean state media said that the Central Military Commission, the body responsible for the development and implementation of the ruling party’s military and defense policies, had a day earlier discussed “further bolstering” the country’s “war deterrent,” an implicit reference to its nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, both the North Korean regime and the White House have delivered mixed messages on the prospect of nuclear talks before the November U.S. presidential poll, raising questions over whether Kim and President Donald Trump are biding their time or kicking the can down the road.
The last time Trump and Kim met was just over a year ago, at the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, in the wake of their failed second summit in Hanoi in February. The two leaders appeared at the time to have salvaged at least some of the momentum toward continuing nuclear talks. However, this was short-lived and high-level talks broke down again in October over Pyongyang’s complaint that Washington had “not discarded its old stance and attitude.”
Since then, top North Korean officials, including Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, have increasingly grown more blunt in their assessments that merely sitting down with the U.S., let alone holding another leaders’ summit, would be fruitless and possibly even detrimental to their position.
“We have nothing to gain from a negotiation with the U.S., and we do not even harbor any expectation about it,” she said in a rambling statement carried by state media earlier this month that also took a thinly veiled jab at Trump — criticism the regime has been careful to avoid explicitly.
If a summit is held now, “it is too obvious that it will only be used as boring boasting coming from someone’s pride,” she said, apparently referring to the U.S. leader, who continues to claim that he brought the two countries back from the brink of nuclear conflict.
While Kim Yo Jong’s remarks stood out to North Korea watchers, other senior officials had taken a similar tack in the weeks before.
“Explicitly speaking once again, we have no intention to sit face to face” with the U.S., Kwon Jong Gun, director-general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Department of U.S. Affairs, said this month.
His comments came just days after First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, one of the top figures involved in negotiations with the U.S., lambasted “dreamers” for raising hopes of an “October surprise” — news just before the November election thought of as big enough to impact its result.
Nevertheless, the North has left the door to talks slightly ajar, with Kim Yo Jong even “questioning” her “personal opinion” that talks this year are unlikely.
“That’s because a surprise thing may still happen, depending upon the judgment and decision between the two top leaders,” she said.
Asked in an interview last week if he would again meet Kim, Trump said he believed the North Koreans “want to meet” and that a summit was not entirely out of the question.
“I would do it if I thought it was going to be helpful,” he said.
Such a meeting would require meticulous planning, and the limited window of time and chances of a payoff — not to mention the domestic issues Trump is currently grappling with — have prompted many observers to rule one out.
But Trump, who has seen his popularity plummet amid the pandemic and police brutality protests, could view a possible diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang as helping to revive his chances at re-election. According to a national poll conducted by Quinnipiac University from July 9 to 13, the U.S. president is down by 15 percentage points against his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“A fourth Trump-Kim meeting isn’t impossible,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “Normally a U.S. president wouldn’t take such a gambit ahead of an election, but down in the polls, Trump has incentive to go ever further off script.”
Kim may also be amenable to a meeting, viewing a possible Trump loss as a closing window of opportunity.
“North Korea is capable of making reversible denuclearization steps in exchange for difficult-to-reverse sanctions relief and South Korean investment,” Easley said.
Alexis Dudden, a Korea and Japan expert at the University of Connecticut, was even more blunt in assessing the odds of another Kim-Trump meeting — or an entirely different approach by the unpredictable U.S. leader.
“If it strikes Trump’s fancy in the middle of the night to fly to Pyongyang and meet Kim in an effort to appear presidential, he will,” she said. “If it strikes Trump’s fancy in the middle of the night to order a militarized attack on a North Korean nuclear facility in an effort to appear presidential, he will.”
A ‘detailed strategic timetable’
Though the North is the hardest of hard targets for intelligence agencies to crack, Pyongyang has offered hints about a broader, longer-term strategy, including the announcement at the Central Military Commission meeting over the weekend.
There, the body examined “the strategic mission of the major units for coping with the military situation in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula” and “discussed and approved major key munitions production plan indices,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
It added that Kim had “signed the orders for carrying out key tasks that had been discussed and decided,” which included “a historic decision … to more reliably guarantee the future of the Juche revolution with the reliable military muscle.”
According to Easley, the reference to “munitions production” likely includes short- and medium-range missiles targeting South Korea, Japan and U.S. forces there.
“The reference to the ‘strategic mission’ of certain military units bolstering Pyongyang’s ‘war deterrent’ implies further deployment of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles,” he said.
Indeed, Choe, the senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official, may had already given a preview of this plan in her July 4 statement, saying that the regime had “already worked out (a) detailed strategic timetable for putting under control the long-term threat from the U.S.”
A different October surprise
Regardless of another Trump-Kim summit, there is growing evidence that North Korea is preparing a different kind of surprise for October, when it marks the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Pyongyang typically marks these kinds of key dates with military parades, and this year’s Oct. 10 anniversary may not be an exception.
Satellite imagery of the Mirim Parade Training Ground in Pyongyang released by North Korea-watching website 38 North last month shows that construction activity, including a massive vehicle storage area that could house “large pieces of military equipment, such as transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) for North Korea’s longest-range missiles,” has neared completion.
The site has in the past been used as a staging point for vehicles ahead of military parades, and the North could use it this time to unveil its long-anticipated “new strategic weapon” or new mobile launchers for its long-range missiles that are capable of evading prying U.S. eyes.
Kim said in his annual New Year’s address in January that the North would further refine its nuclear program and introduce the new weapon in the near future. But he also left room for dialogue with the United States after Washington ignored a year-end deadline he had set for progress in talks.
“I would expect to see something new in October,” said Joshua Pollack, a North Korea missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.
“They’ve paraded TELs before without new structures at Mirim, so I don’t know what to make of that,” he said. “But the idea that they might show off new (intercontinental ballistic missile) launchers makes sense to me.”
A missile test of the ICBMs that the launchers carry, however, may be a bridge too far.
Kim is widely believed to favor Trump over Biden in the election, according to experts. Pyongyang has traded barbs with Biden, whose policy toward North Korea appears focused on bolstering sanctions and repairing U.S. military alliances with South Korea and Japan that have been frayed under Trump.
But a second term for the current U.S. president could prove a boon for the North.
“The North Korean view is that if Trump is re-elected to a second term, when he is emboldened by the election, that he would be willing to do a deal with North Korea,” said Ken Gause, a North Korea expert and director of the Adversary Analytics program at CNA, a research and analysis group in Virginia.
“If that view continues to hold, I believe North Korea will abide by the ‘red line’ set down at the DMZ, which means they will not do an ICBM test and they won’t do a nuclear test,” he added.
But with Trump struggling in the polls, the North is almost certainly continually re-evaluating its plans, including a possible return to more provocative actions.
“Once the North Koreans lose faith that Trump will either not deliver or can’t deliver, then all that is out the door,” said Gause. “So really, you’d have to make that calculation closer to October.”