The latest developments involving North Korea show how little the regime has changed as far as its handling of the nuclear issue is concerned. This means the international community -- not least the US and South Korea -- may have to rethink its approach toward the country and its leader.
North Korea is apparently using what former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called a “revolving door.” He used the term in a recent interview to refer to the fact that the North “opened and closed so many times” the facility at its key nuclear site Yongbyon when it was in denuclearization negotiations.
Indeed, recent North Korean provocations -- firing short-range missiles, including those which are believed to be in the same class as the Russian Iskander missile -- is part of a typical vicious circle, in which the North escalates tensions in the middle of negotiations in order to gain concessions.
There is no doubt that the show of force, the first of its kind since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held a historic meeting with US President Donald Trump in June last year, is aimed at exerting pressure on Trump to lift sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its past nuclear and missile provocations in return for some partial disarmament actions it had taken.
The latest North Korean saber-rattling may also well be related to its pressure on South Korea. The North Korean firing of short-range missiles and other projectiles in the past weeks was accompanied by its demand for implementing economic cooperation projects which could cause cracks in the international sanctions against its regime. The resumption of a South-North joint industrial complex in Kaesong is one such key demand being made.
“The resumption of operations at the complex is not an issue that needs Washington’s approval. The South is giving excuses for foreign forces to intervene in cooperative projects as it talks about things like approval or sanctions,” a North Korean propaganda outlet said.
Another outlet, while refraining from directly mentioning the Kaesong complex and the South Korean and international plans to provide the North with food, also emphasized the call to reopen the inter-Korean industrial complex.
“It would be ridiculing the yearning of the nation ... to say empty words like plans and humanitarianism while putting fundamental issues related to implementation of the declarations on the back burner,” it said.
It is apparent what the North wants: Press the government of President Moon Jae-in in the South to move more vigorously to reopen suspended inter-Korean projects -- including the Kaesong complex and the Kumgangsan tour -- and use it to dent the harshest-ever economic sanctions imposed on its regime.
In part, the appeasement policy of both Moon and Trump emboldens the North to resort to its usual tactic of escalating tensions and demanding more concessions from its negotiating parities.
Trump has even been trying to play down the latest North Korean provocations. He noted that the missiles the North fired were short-range ones and that it did not constitute “a breach of trust.” He obviously does not want the latest developments to be seen as a violation of the North Korean commitment to self-imposed moratorium on new nuclear and long-range missiles, which he has touted as his major foreign policy achievement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed his boss’s position, saying in a forum: “Our diplomatic efforts to get the entire world to engage, to see the risk for what it is, and to help us get North Korea to a brighter future, is something that our administration is profoundly proud of.”
But the recent missile provocations and statements from the North Korean propaganda outlets foster a negative view of such an optimistic position.
Gates said in CBS’ “Face the Nation” program that the North “will never completely denuclearize.” He said that the North would stick to its strategy: “We’ll do a little and you do some. ... We’ll do a little and you do more.”
Unless the North changes its mind, more politicians and public in both the US and South Korea will agree with the former secretary’s views, which would undoubtedly put pressure on both Trump and Moon to change their minds too. It would be better for Kim to change his mind before that.