It is always risky to interpret a single development in North Korea to predict the real course of action to be taken by the leadership in Pyongyang. It is the same with the ongoing visit by a senior UN official to the country’s capital.
But all but the most cautious and pessimistic can detect the possibility that the four-day visit by Jeffrey Feltman, the UN undersecretary general for political affairs, may well raise hopes for the possibility of the North exploring a diplomatic solution to the crisis involving its nuclear and missile programs.
It is the first time in six years that the North has received a top UN official. N officials said he would meet Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and other North Korean officials to discuss “issues of mutual interest and concern.”
Feltman went to Pyongyang after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his willingness to serve as a mediator to resolve the North Korea crisis that stokes fears of war on the Korean Peninsula.
So it would be strange if Feltman, a former US diplomat, did not take up the issue with North Korean officials during his stay in Pyongyang.
Then will the discussions be a prelude to the start of negotiations? There had been some positive signs that the North might want to use Feltman’s visit to sound out the UN or the US on the possibility of starting negotiations.
UN officials said North Korea disclosed its intention to invite Feltman in September when tension between Washington and Pyongyang was heightening in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” the North. Pyongyang responded with a threat of unprecedented provocations, including the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific.
What’s also noteworthy is that Pyongyang gave the final greenlight to Feltman’ s visit only one day after test-firing its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile last week.
The North claimed the successful launch of the missile -- which Western experts said could reach eastern US mainland -- meant the “completion of a state nuclear force.”
There had been speculation that after developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of reaching the US mainland, the North may seek to talk with the US to demand -- among other things -- Washington recognize it as a nuclear power.
A clue as to what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is thinking may come after Feltman returns to New York. But one thing to guard against is the possibility of the North using the visit only to buy time to evade economic and military pressure being bolstered by the international community.
The North’s latest ICBM provocation has already led to talk of not only economic sanctions, such as an oil embargo, but also military sanctions, such as maritime interdiction and naval blockade, as well as a pre-emptive strike against the North’s key facilities.
In a show of force, the US and South Korea are holding this week the largest-ever joint air combat and bombing drill involving more than 200 warplanes, including two dozen US Stealth aircraft and the B1-B Lancer supersonic long-range bombers.
All this economic and military pressure may force Kim to seek -- or pretend to -- dialogue. It would be better than nothing and it is important to explore every possible avenue for a negotiated settlement of the crisis.
But that should not allow -- as in the past -- the North to resort to delay tactics or try to cause cracks in the international alliance against its nuclear and missile programs.
For now, the international community ought to focus on placing such strict sanctions on the North that it is forced to crawl back to the negotiation table.
That, of course, should be accompanied by flawless military preparedness to cope with any further provocation or contingency.