On Wednesday — with Washington transfixed on the House impeachment inquiry — North Korea significantly raised the stakes, making an implicit threat to resume long-range missile or nuclear tests. In an official statement, the North said it felt “betrayed” by a U.S. decision to continue with joint air drills with South Korea, calling it an “undisguised breach” of an agreement made between Kim and Trump in Singapore last year.
As a result, North Korea said, it no longer felt bound by previous commitments. That could signal plans to resume nuclear or long-range missile tests.
“The U.S. is not accepting with due consideration the year-end time limit that we set out of great patience and magnanimity,” the statement from the country’s State Affairs Commission said.
“We, without being given anything, gave things the U.S. president can brag about but the U.S. side has not yet taken any corresponding step,” it added. “Now, betrayal is only what we feel from the U.S. side.”
Trump has repeatedly boasted that North Korea has stopped conducting nuclear or long-range missile tests under his watch, although it has conducted about a dozen shorter-range ballistic missile tests since April. But Pyongyang says Trump has reneged on a promise to end joint military exercises with Seoul.
'No sufficient time left'
Relations between the two sides deteriorated sharply after a failed summit in Hanoi in February. Two months later, Kim threatened to take his country on a “new path” unless the United States changed its approach to the talks.
North Korea appears to want sanctions relief and security guarantees — some way of feeling that the regime would not suffer the same fate as Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein if it scaled back its nuclear program.
If it doesn’t get what it wants from Trump, and soon, it may be about to dial up the heat.
“At present, when one party backpedals on its commitments and unilaterally takes hostile steps, there is neither reason nor any excuse for the other party to keep itself bound to its commitments. What’s more, there is no sufficient time left,” the North’s statement said, vowing to answer dialogue with dialogue and “recourse to force in kind.”
South Korea says it is taking the threat seriously but insists there is still time to save the day.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said he believed the United States and North Korea would return to the negotiating table before the end of the year.
“If they miss this opportunity, the situation and the environment will get more difficult, and it will become more difficult for us to solve the issues,” he said in an interview.
Talks between the two sides in Stockholm ended in October with North Korean delegation officials denouncing their American counterparts. Swedish efforts to revive that process have foundered.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, speaking en route to South Korea on Wednesday,” said “talks about talks” are underway and offered to adjust military exercises “either more or less depending on what diplomacy may require.”
In two statements issued late Thursday, North Korea said it would welcome a complete halt to the exercises but expressed skepticism about talks, saying the dialogue proposal seemed like a “trick to earn time.”
Questions about next step
Pessimism is rising among the North Korea-watching community of policy experts and analysts. They see the prospect of an escalation in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.
Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said he believed the polarized political atmosphere in Washington limited U.S. negotiators’ room to maneuver.
“Do you know how hard it is to pull together a major diplomatic initiative in seven weeks? Do you know how hard it is when the president is moving into impeachment? In Washington, we’re seeing the most poisonous atmosphere, so that no matter what the president proposes, it will be torn to shreds,” he said in a lecture in Seoul on Tuesday.
If the North Korean leader announces “extremely negative measures” in his New Year’s speech, “I cannot see us responding in anything other than a very stern, escalatory way,” he said.
“My concern,” he added, “is the North Koreans are going to miscalculate.”
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said he also believes North Korea will take some “tough” steps early next year — possibly a satellite launch or an intercontinental ballistic missile test. Meanwhile, Kim Yeon-chul will travel to Washington and Los Angeles next week as Seoul tries to reprise its role as peacemaker.
But Lankov said North Korea would probably hold back from a “dramatic” gesture — mostly to avoid a setback in relations with China, whose role as North Korea’s main economic lifeline has grown since sanctions were imposed.
But he faces an uphill battle: North Korea has shut off dialogue with the South, and Washington sees Seoul as much less central to the process than it did a year ago. The country has even been replaced as a go-between by Sweden.
Still, Kim Yeon-chul says he will bring ideas to Washington. The unification minister wants the two sides to focus on confidence-building measures; for example, by easing travel restrictions on U.S. citizens of Korean origin who still have relatives in the North.
He suggested they might consider an “Olympics armistice” next year, in which North Korea suspends its missile tests and the United States suspends joint military exercises with South Korea. Japan — which also had deep concerns over North Korea’s military and nuclear capabilities — is host of the 2020 Summer Games.
His main message, though: Progress on North Korean denuclearization has to go hand-in-hand with progress in inter-Korean relations, and the three countries, North and South Korea and the United States, all need to work on improving relations.
“So if all of these three relations could make some positive progress and create a virtuous cycle, then we can make successful progress with North Korean denuclearization,” he said.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.