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North Korea’s recent missile launches signal that the regime has reverted to familiar tactics to attract the attention of the US. Although the rest of the world will take little comfort from this return to “normality”, after a six-month pause Pyongyang last weekend launched what it claimed were new long-range cruise missiles capable of hitting Japan, followed hours later by the test launch of two ballistic missiles into the sea, apparently from a train.
Then came the clearest sign since its last nuclear test in 2017 that the North is not about to abandon its project to build a viable deterrent, with satellite images showing it was expanding a uranium enrichment plant at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex.
North Korea continues to claim, to widespread scepticism, to have escaped Covid-19 infections. But border restrictions, sanctions and natural disasters have plunged its economy into its worst crisis for decades. In July, the regime even signalled that the virus had pierced its defences.
Well over two years since his last summit with the former US president, Donald Trump, the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is eager to revive nuclear diplomacy, this time with Joe Biden, to help his country’s ailing economy and boost his standing at home, according to North Korea watchers.
“North Korea wants to initiate a dialogue with the US,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the government-affiliated Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
“Kim Jong-un has experienced the excitement of holding summits with a US president and he wants to revive them. North Korea is in a dire economic situation. In the midst of competition between the US and China, North Korea is on the Chinese side, but this doesn’t guarantee Chinese economic support.”
Any hopes that Biden’s election would herald a breakthrough in nuclear talks evaporated after US officials said there would be no immediate attempts to rekindle summitry with Kim.
“Biden’s approach is to manage North Korea through deterrence rather than engagement,” Kim Hyun-wook said. “I think he is gearing towards Obama’s strategic patience. If North Korea provokes militarily, Biden will focus on sanctions. Sanctions will be hardened, and deterrence capabilities bolstered.”
The standoff over how far the regime should go towards denuclearisation in return for sanctions relief looks set to continue, as Biden turns his attention to China.
Pyongyang, however, must tread a fine line between reminding Washington of the unique foreign policy challenge it represents, and provoking it into even tougher sanctions.
It was telling, for instance, that a parade earlier this month marking North Korea’s foundation 73 years ago showcased paramilitary, civil defence and anti-epidemic forces rather than long-range missiles that many experts believe are capable of striking the US mainland.
The coming months could provide the right political backdrop for a reawakening of diplomacy in the region, even as the North rediscovers its appetite for missile tests, according to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“Despite the arms buildup on both sides of the peninsula, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, hopes to make a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea during his final months in office,” he said.
Moon, who leaves office next May, used his speech at the UN general assembly on Tuesday to propose a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean war, which ended with an armistice but not a peace treaty, meaning the North and South are still technically at war.
Easley added: “The Biden administration wants to avoid escalation while maintaining the goal of denuclearisation. Japan is about to change prime ministers. And China talks up regional stability while blame-shifting toward Washington and Seoul. As a result, the Kim regime likely believes it can get away with pushing the nuclear envelope.”
But in recent comments, North Korea insisted the real nuclear threat comes from beyond its borders. The formation of a US-UK-Australia security pact could trigger a “nuclear arms race” in the region, a foreign ministry official said in a statement this week.
“These are extremely undesirable and dangerous acts which will upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and trigger a nuclear arms race,” the official was quoted as saying by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. “This shows that the US is the chief culprit toppling the international nuclear non-proliferation system,” they added.
The irony of those words will not be lost on Washington, where Biden’s refusal to continue his predecessor’s personal relationship with Kim will add to concern that the North could abandon the caution that has guided it through the pandemic and plunge relations with the US into the fear and uncertainty of the Obama years.
If that happens, the US and its allies are not without options, Easley said.
“South Korea can bury the hatchet with Japan and increase intelligence sharing and missile defence cooperation. The Biden administration can restore military exercises with allies that had been scaled down during the pandemic. On sanctions, even if China and Russia block action at the UN security council, the US and like-minded countries can improve enforcement and designate new violators, including Chinese firms.”