Will North Korea rain missiles on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Joe Biden’s parade in Washington this week?
One wildcard that could potentially prevent a smooth summit between the two leaders is a missile test or unveiling of a new weapon by the North as it marks a key anniversary and seeks to force itself back to the top of a meeting agenda widely expected to be dominated by China.
Although the North conducted its first ballistic missile launch in nearly a year late last month, the coming days could provide leader Kim Jong Un with a fresh opportunity to return to the headlines as the country marks the birth anniversary of his grandfather and the country’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, on Thursday.
Pyongyang has been known to launch missiles around key anniversaries and diplomatic events, including during the first summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2017.
Aside from a launch, though, the North has other options for provocation.
One could be a new ballistic missile submarine, which South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities believe Kim’s regime is set to roll out, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported Sunday, citing unidentified sources. The North Korean leader, the sources said, may merely be biding his time before unveiling the 3,000-ton sub.
In addition, North Korea-monitoring website 38 North reported last week that satellite imagery taken the Saturday showed that a missile canister for a submersible missile test barge on the North’s east coast had likely been removed, possibly indicating preparations to roll out the new sub or early work for a submarine launched ballistic missile test.
The Biden administration is also preparing to announce its new policy toward Pyongyang after a monthslong review. Although it is unclear when the review will conclude, U.S. officials have signaled it could wrap up within the next week, providing Kim with another reason to test Washington and Tokyo’s resolve.
But provocation or not, North Korea will assuredly be on the summit agenda, with Suga placing a heavy emphasis on Biden’s commitment to help secure the return of Japanese nationals abducted by agents of Pyongyang in the 1970s and ’80s. The prime minister has said resolving the abductions issue is “the most important” challenge for his administration.
That issue is expected to be a part of a joint statement released by the two leaders after their meeting. The statement is also likely to include language urging North Korea’s “complete denuclearization.”
Japan and the United States have said they are in agreement on the need for continued pressure on the North over its nuclear and missile programs, but it remains unclear if the two sides can agree on an approach beyond that.
Whatever the case, the two allies will look to bridge any gaps as soon as possible as Pyongyang continues to refine its weapons capabilities — and force their hand.
According to a report released Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Kim could even look to resume nuclear tests this year in a bid to force Biden “to deal with him on Pyongyang’s terms.”
The North has not conducted a nuclear test since September 2017 and any return to testing would be seen by Tokyo and Washington as extremely provocative.
“North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may take a number of aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions to reshape the regional security environment … up to and including the resumption of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing,” the ODNI said in its annual U.S. threat assessment.
“We assess that Kim views nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against foreign intervention and believes that over time he will gain international acceptance and respect as a nuclear power,” the report added. “He probably does not view the current level of pressure on his regime as enough to require a fundamental change in its approach.”
While the White House has ruled out a Biden-Kim summit in the near future, Suga said earlier this month that he remained open to a meeting.
“Japan must take the initiative,” he said. “I, myself, am determined to meet Kim Jong Un face-to-face without any conditions.”
Meanwhile, a joint report released the same day by Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the Rand Corp. think tanks warned that by 2027, the North could have have up to 242 nuclear weapons, dozens of long-range weapons capable of striking the continental U.S. and hundreds of nuclear-tipped weapons that could strike Japan.
That report warned that the U.S. strategy of negotiating with North Korea to achieve its denuclearization “has failed and seems likely to continue failing,” and that serious consideration should be given to bolstering deterrent capabilities, including the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.
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