Clutching binoculars and clad in a periwinkle suit, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un watched the launch of two new missiles into the Sea of Japan Thursday, the latest display of military might that threatens to derail the Trump Administration’s much-vaunted rapprochement with the secretive state.
Described by Pyongyang as a “solemn warning” against “South Korean warmongers,” the short-range missiles appear to have been launched from mobile platforms off North Korea’s eastern coastal city of Wonsan, and come just days after Kim was seen inspecting a new submarine that experts say could represent a significant advancement of the rogue regime’s military clout.
Kim said Seoul should “not make a mistake of ignoring the warning” of the missile tests, which appear to be prompted by the resumption of—albeit scaled back—joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea next month. One of the missiles traveled 428 miles (690 km), according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The launches were the first since Kim and President Donald Trump met for the third time, on June 30, at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the Korean peninsula’s communist North from its democratic South.
The State Department urged Pyongyang to refrain from further provocations. But the tests highlight the lack of meaningful progress on reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile program despite the bromance that’s blossomed between Trump and Kim since their first meeting in Singapore in June 2018.
Despite a flurry of obsequious letters and platitudes from both sides—Trump even bragged that the two leaders “fell in love”—the “underlying positions are in some ways exactly the same as they were back in 2017,” says Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Although the latest tests do not breach North Korea’ self-declared moratorium on testing nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—a red line the Trump administration says would derail negations—they do demonstrate the regime’s upward trajectory regarding technological advancement and building stockpiles.
Kim said the latest test involved a new tactical guided weapons system. Its “low-altitude gliding and leaping flight” made it “hard to intercept.” Trump has yet to comment on the latest test, though said earlier launches in May were not “anything major,” despite the same mobile launch technology easing the regime’s ability to hide such rockets, which could carry a nuclear payload, in secret tunnels and armories away from weapons inspectors. New satellite imagery also indicates continued uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon nuclear plant.
“This is the big problem with having a showman, reality TV star running the American side, because he doesn’t actually know anything about what’s negotiated,” says Robert Kelly, professor of political science and diplomacy at Pusan National University. “Every couple of months, whenever Trump had some meeting, it’s like, where’s the beef?”
Analysts have also expressed concern that Kim is upping pressure on Trump to grant concessions, mindful that a denuclearization deal would boost the real estate mogul’s 2020 reelection campaign. The DMZ meeting, for example, “was driven by near-term transactional needs on both sides,” says Snyder. “But Kim Jong Un is operating on a different timeline from Trump, which gives Kim a potential serious advantage in terms of an outcome.”
While the relationship between Trump and Kim remains rosy, North Korea has not followed through when negotiators, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, take over to handle the detail of denuclearization. The latest tests also coincided with national security adviser John Bolton, the most hawkish member of the Trump Administration regarding Pyonygang, meeting with South Korean officials in Seoul to discuss strengthening their alliance.
In addition, and aside from the looming joint drills, Seoul has in recent months begun taking ownership of some the 40 F-35A stealth jets ordered from U.S. weapons firm Lockheed Martin.
Kim Dong-yub, director of research at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, told NK News that Pyongyang probably saw justification for “tit-for-tat measures” in light of these actions. “North Korea can furtively put pressure on the U.S. without spoiling the atmosphere for dialogue,” he said.
There is, of course, a flipside. Kelly suggests that Kim risks overreaching if he continues to dial up provocations. The famously capricious Trump has offered more concessions than any U.S. President in living memory, agreeing to the first summit between the sitting leaders of these long-time adversaries, talking of signing a peace deal and reestablishing diplomatic relations, as well as postponing joint military drills for a time. It’s unlikely Kim will ever face so good an opportunity to seal a historic deal with Washington.
“Trump’s given away the farm, right?” says Kelly. “Whoever comes in after him is almost certainly going to be more hawkish on North Korea.”
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