Over the past year, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jung-un have pursued a political rapprochement. Trump and Kim have met twice - once in Singapore and once in Hanoi - to discuss the possibility of the denuclearization of North Korea. After the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, however, the rapprochement appears to be waning.
Recent North Korean launches and the seizure of the Wise Honest, a North Korean shipping vessel, by the United States, if mismanaged, may jeopardize the little progress the Trump administration has made in regard to North Korea.
Currying favour with the United States has played into the North Korean domestic political landscape. At the First Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly hosted by Kim Jung-un in April, delegates filled the State Affairs Commission, a powerful political decision body in North Korea, with key proponents of advancing diplomacy with the United States. North Korea obviously has seen some benefit from the ongoing negotiations as it has prioritized rapprochement in the domestic political sphere.
Pyongyang, however, also signaled a tougher stance toward negotiations with the United States. Powerful military leaders, such as Choe Ryong-hae, were appointed to a variety of powerful political positions at the Supreme People’s Assembly.
Kim Jung-un, in his concluding speech to the April session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, outlined this tougher approach. In the speech, Kim gave President Trump until the end of year to make concessions in order to avoid another breakdown in talks. Kim also expressed the need for a strong military to defend the sovereignty of North Korea. Such a hardline strategy ensures Pyongyang does not give up military strength in case of another diplomatic breakdown.
In order to ensure military preparedness in case of diplomatic breakdown, Kim Jung-un oversaw two tests of short-range ballistic missiles similar to the Russian Iksander. The first test, on May 3, flew anywhere between 70 and 200km while the second, launched on May 9, flew about 460km before splashing into the Sea of Japan.
By test firing the missile twice, North Korea not only tried to gain leverage in the stalled negotiations with the United States, but also signaled its intentions to develop a new short-range missile capable of flying undetected by advanced missile defense systems stationed in South Korea.
President Trump, since the tests, continues to push for a diplomatically reached big deal regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. Following the first missile test on May 4, Trump tweeted his belief that Kim will not do anything to sabotage ongoing diplomatic actions.
Following the May 9 test, President Trump reiterated his belief, saying “the relationship [with North Korea] continues,” and that North Korea “wants to negotiate” but may not be prepared at this time. President Trump also
South Korea and the United States have gone to great lengths to downplay the launches as a way to maintain diplomatic momentum. After its initial statement, the South Korean military amended its analysis to say the North had launched projectiles, removing any mention of a missile being fired.
The Trump administration has focused on the operational capabilities of the missiles. United States Secretary of State argued that Pyongyang remained in compliance of any moratorium since “the moratorium was focused, very focused on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
On the surface, Pompeo is correct. North Korea’s is not in violation of any agreed moratorium since its April 2018 moratorium, as Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang write, was self-imposed and “applied only to intercontinental ballistic missile systems.”
However, North Korea’s launch is likely in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions which ban the testing of ballistic missiles. Whether the test violated any resolution or moratorium, the tests will make continued diplomatic action difficult; North Korea is continuing to expand its military capabilities which will make concessions by the United States difficult to offer.
Hours after the test on May 9, the United States Department of Justice filed a civil forfeiture complaint against the North Korean shipping vessel Wise Honest. According to press release from the Department of Justice, the Wise Honest was used to export coal by concealing its origin and “was used to import heavy machinery to North Korea, helping expand North Korea’s capabilities and continuing the cycle of sanctions evasion.”
With the seizure, the United States hoped to interrupt North Korea’s cycle of sanctions evasion and signal its intentions to use every legal action possible, including criminal charges, to disrupt such a strategy.
North Korea strongly demurred the United States seizure of the Wise Honest. In a strongly worded statement, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson called the seizure a “unlawful and outrageous action act,” adding that the legal grounding used as justification for the seizure “flagrantly infringed upon the sovereignty of our state.”
The spokesman, in the statement, laid the justification for further missile tests, saying “the U.S. should ponder over the consequences its heinous act might have on the future developments” on the Korean peninsula.
Author: Benjamin Zimmer
Benjamin is the founder of The Korea Page: News and Analysis from the Korean Peninsula and a current Master in International Affairs candidate at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M.