Kim challenges Trump with new missile tests

Kim Jong-un oversaw the Thursday exercises, where he “guided the strike drill of defense units of the Korean People’s Army.” (Bloomberg Photo)

North Korea is once again pressing the boundaries of what it can get away with, returning to missile tests this week in violation of international sanctions championed by United States (US) President Donald Trump. So far, the reaction has been muted.

Trump dismissed Kim Jong-un’s move to launch two short-range missiles on Thursday, six days after the North Korean leader supervised a military exercise in which he fired off several projectiles, including what non-proliferation experts believed was another short-range ballistic missile.

“They’re smaller missiles,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “Nobody’s happy about it.” The Pentagon confirmed late Thursday that North Korea tested “multiple ballistic missiles.”

The launches took place as the president’s top envoy to North Korean negotiations, Stephen Biegun, was in Seoul to discuss how to jump-start talks stalled since Trump and Kim failed to reach an accord at a summit in Vietnam in February. While both leaders have said they’re open to a third summit, the lack of lower-level talks or other signs of progress had left Trump relying on Pyongyang’s lack of weapons testing as a sign of his diplomatic success.

Now even that has ended.

North Korea hinted that more tests may be on the way, saying in an official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) media report Friday that Kim was looking “to further increase the capability of the defense units,” which carried out the two weapons tests. It also said Kim oversaw the Thursday exercises, where he “guided the strike drill of defense units of the Korean People’s Army.”

Selling points

“The recent tests put Trump in a difficult position,” said Eric Brewer, a visiting fellow with the Center for a New American Security who previously worked on North Korean policy in Trump’s National Security Council. “He has highlighted multiple times now the lack of missile testing and nuclear testing as one of the big success points and big selling points of his efforts at diplomacy and as one of the key outcomes of that process.”

Even though ballistic missile testing is banned by resolutions pushed by Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, the US tamped down talk this week about having a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the violations, according to two Security Council diplomats who asked not to be identified.

South Korean officials had played down the earlier tests, saying they were not a provocation, while Japan said that the projectiles fired Thursday posed no risk to its territory and didn’t land in its nearby waters. Non-proliferation experts said the muted response to the tests risk encouraging Kim to conduct more. The latest incident bolstered those concerns.

North Korea’s official media said Kim “guided the strike drill of defense units of the Korean People’s Army,” in the western part of the country on the day of the drills in a report that did not mention the word “missiles” but used similar language to its Saturday weapons test, which Kim oversaw.

‘Low-key’ response

“Since the US response was low-key, North Korea appears to think that this level of test would not cause problems and it can continue the tests,” said Jina Kim, a research fellow at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

The most significant pushback on the tests came Thursday from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has championed the outreach to North Korea.

“I’d like to warn that if such tests continue, it could hurt dialogue,” Moon said in an interview with broadcaster KBS TV on Thursday, the eve of his second anniversary in office. “North Korea appears to have significant frustration that the Hanoi summit ended without a deal. It is protesting to the United States and South Korea.”

In the US, the Department of Justice announced on Thursday that it took possession of a North Korean ship that had been seized by a foreign government more than a year ago after violating restrictions on transporting coal out of North Korea.

Search for remains

Without an easing of sanctions, however, Kim may be emboldened to go further. The US this week said it was suspending efforts to recover the remains of American troops who died in North Korea during the Korean War, CNN reported, saying officials were unable to make contact with their North Korean counterparts.

Kim’s regime, impatient for concessions from the US, has also restarted attacks against Trump’s officials. That includes an accusation by a senior North Korean diplomat last month that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made “reckless remarks” which undermined talks between Trump and Kim.

The official urged that Pompeo be replaced as the US point man in the negotiations. While the North Korean regime has criticised Pompeo often since Trump’s first meeting with Kim in June, it was the first time an official had formally demanded his replacement.

“We’ve seen a series of escalatory moves since Hanoi,” Brewer said. “There has been a lot of attacks against members of Trump’s team. Kim’s ultimate goal is defacto acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status and with that the ending or irrelevance of the international sanctions regime.”

‘Big thing’

Just before Kim’s first summit with Trump last June, analysis of satellite imagery by the website 38 North showed that Kim was razing facilities in the area used to test missile ejections. Trump said after meeting Kim it was a “big thing” to have missile facilities destroyed. But since then, some facilities have expanded and North Korea is believed to have continued production of missiles and fissile material.

“North Korea has now made it clear it will not halt developing other parts of its military capabilities that threaten the region,” said Harry Kazianis, Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. “Kim’s goal, beyond ensuring his weapons programs are becoming more powerful, is quite clear: to show America and its allies that if they aren’t willing to compromise on the terms of denuclearisation that Pyongyang will indeed go its own way.” - Bloomberg