North Korea’s provocations add to U.S. to-do list

Korea News Service
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, attends a military parade in Pyongyang on Sept. 9.

SEOUL/WASHINGTON — North Korea’s recent flurry of missile launches appears to be part of an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on the U.S. government, but without antagonizing Washington to the extent that it slaps additional sanctions on Pyongyang.

North Korea launched ballistic missiles that landed in the Sea of Japan on Wednesday, hot on the heels of test-launching a new type of long-range cruise missile on Saturday and Sunday.

“North Korea has gradually stepped up its provocations toward the United States, starting with its military parade on Sept. 9,” a South Korean government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun on Wednesday.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is maintaining strict sanctions on North Korea. Although it has shown a positive attitude toward dialogue with North Korea, the Biden administration does not plan to lift any sanctions unless Pyongyang takes substantive steps toward denuclearization.

According to the South Korean government official, North Korea’s recent missile launches appear to be a “sign of frustration” with the United States, which has proposed holding talks but without offering any “gift” such as an easing of sanctions.

Negotiating card

North Korea’s provocations also clearly aim to give Pyongyang an additional negotiating card — the improved performance of its missiles through these test-launches — as it prepares for expected talks with the United States. It is possible North Korea will continue applying pressure until the Biden administration considers providing a reward in return, such as lifting sanctions or resolving the nuclear issue through summit talks, similar to the approach taken by the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, suggested that the missile North Korea launched Wednesday could be a version of an Iskander missile, which can fly on an irregular trajectory and is difficult to intercept. North Korea’s new type of long-range cruise missiles, which reportedly can fly 1,500 kilometers, and short-range Iskander-type missiles could pose a threat to U.S. military forces based in South Korea and Japan.

The South Korean government official said: “The Biden administration is up to its neck dealing with strained ties with China, the novel coronavirus pandemic, Afghanistan and other issues. The United States can’t afford to get into a military confrontation with North Korea at this time, so Pyongyang appears to believe Washington will sooner or later make some concessions.”

New tack

North Korea’s repeated provocations also could force the Biden administration to review its policy toward Pyongyang.

In line with the “calibrated, practical approach” called for in a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea completed in late April, the United States has been seeking diplomatic talks with Pyongyang. Even after North Korea’s long-range cruise missile launch was announced, Karine Jean-Pierre, the U.S. principal deputy press secretary, said Monday, “Our offer remains to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions. So, that hasn’t changed.”

The United States has a limited number of options available. Biden is skeptical of holding top-level summit talks — an approach Trump favored — so a breakthrough at such a meeting seems unlikely.

In a bid to put greater pressure on North Korea, the United States could call for tougher sanctions such as through the adoption of a new U.N. Security Council resolution. However, China holds veto power on the council and could block such efforts. The Biden administration believes that the United States and China will compete in some issues but can cooperate in others. It looks like the success of U.S. attempts to deal with North Korea-related issues in the months ahead will hinge largely on whether Washington can persuade China to offer its cooperation.