North Korean leader Kim Jung Un’s recent actions were disturbing – and potentially dangerous. After two summits with President Donald Trump and an historic June 30th meeting at the DMZ, during which both leaders agreed that working level negotiations would commence soonest, we’ve witnessed, in the span of one month, significant unsettling escalation from North Korea. No doubt, this escalation was meant to threaten the U.S., and other countries in the region, that regardless of Kim’s relationship with Trump, North Korea wants the U.S. to cave in to their demand: cancellation of the joint U.S.-ROK defensive military exercise in August and the lifting of sanctions.
North Korea’s decision not to attend the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum on August 2nd was the latest message, primarily to the U.S., that North Korea was not happy. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made it abundantly clear that he would attend and was looking forward to meeting his North Korean counterpart, Minister Ri Yong Ho, at the annual ASEAN meeting. Indeed, in previous years, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs attended these annual ASEAN meetings, often with the expectation that there would be a meeting, or at least an exchange, with the Secretary of State. This year, North Korea, at a late date, decided to cancel the participation of Minister Ri, or any representative from North Korea. This was a not-too-subtle message to the U.S., and others, that North Korea wasn’t happy.
What preceded this recent message of unhappiness from North Korea was even more egregious: the launching of two relatively new mobile, solid fuel short range ballistic missiles (SRBM), in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, followed by the test of a new multiple rocket launcher (MRL) system. Both the SRBM and MRL system are reportedly capable of evading missile defense systems and reaching targets in Seoul and beyond, to include the U.S. Air Base in Osan and U.S. Army Garrison –Camp Humphreys. This flurry of missile and rocket activity was in addition to the July 23 reporting from Pyongyang of Kim’s observation of North Korea’s new ballistic missile submarine, reportedly capable of delivering nuclear weapons. This was quite an active month for North Korea, apparently hoping the U.S. and South Korea got the message that the North was serious when they gave the U.S. until the end of this year to come up with a new strategic calculus for dealing with North Korea.
The two-week low-key joint ROK-U.S. military exercise, named “Command Post training” is now underway, scheduled to end August 20. It’s a computer simulated exercise, with the goal of preparing South Korea’s Ministry of Defense to eventually assume operational control of the combined forces in South Korea. Although this year’s computer simulated exercise has been scaled back significantly, North Korea continues to be unhappy.
We’re at an important inflection point with North Korea. After the June 30th DMZ meeting of President Trump and Chairman Kim, there was guarded optimism that finally we would have working level negotiations to determine if a peaceful resolution of issues with North Korea was possible. Our working level negotiators would meet to determine if the June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit’s Joint Statement was achievable: The transformation of U.S.- DPRK bilateral relations, a peace treaty ending the Korean War and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But without these working level meetings, it’s now impossible to say that those goals are achievable. North Korea’s recent escalation of military tension with the U.S. and South Korea, and their unwillingness to even meet at the Secretary of State level are indicators that things could get worse, quickly. That the U.S. and South Korea, and others, eventually will lose patience with North Korea and work with the U.N. Security Council to further sanction North Korea if the North persists with missile launches and other related military provocations. It would be a matter of time before public support to Presidents Trump and Moon will cease, with the prospect of a return to a policy of “maximum pressure” and “fire and fury.”
Kim Jung Un’s recent meeting with China’s Xi Jinping in Pyongyang, and the four previous meetings in Beijing, apparently all went well. Hopefully, China is now in a better position to counsel Kim to cease any further military escalation and to engage the U.S. in working level negotiations to determine if complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea (South Korea has no nuclear weapons) is possible, in return for security assurances, a normal bilateral relationship with the U.S., and the eventual lifting of sanctions.
Further military escalation and threats from North Korea would be unfortunate. It could lead to additional sanctions and greater isolation of North Korea, with the potential of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. This can be avoided only if North Korea enters into meaningful working level negotiations. North Korea’s continued refusal to enter into these negotiations should be of immediate concern for all nations, especially those in Northeast Asia.
The author is the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.