SEOUL (Reuters) - Frustrated by what it sees as a lack of flexibility by the United States, North Korea has set a year-end deadline for Washington to change its policies or leader Kim Jong Un may embark on a “new path”.
Talks over the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenals are stalled despite two years of efforts and three unprecedented meetings between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
What exactly Kim’s new path may be is unclear, and there is little direct insight into the thinking of the North Korean leader and his inner circle beyond a steady stream of state media reports warning that the deadline should not be ignored.
Reuters spoke to North Korea watchers from around the world for insight into what Kim might do in the new year. Responses have been edited for length.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN, LECTURER AT LEIDEN UNIVERSITY IN THE NETHERLANDS
“The odds are on an aggressive turn, but it does rather depend how events unfold between now and the end of the year. The meeting (of ruling party leaders later this month) might conclude with faux-regret that the Party must now shift resources back to military development. They might well decide that what everyone’s diary for 2020 really needs is a North Korean satellite launch. But on the other hand, if there is movement in talks with the United States, they might also seek a pretext to overturn their ultimatum. At the moment, but not for much longer, the script of the meeting is amenable to change.”
JENNY TOWN, MANAGING EDITOR OF STIMSON CENTER’S 38 NORTH WEBSITE
“It would not be surprising to see something big, like an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) test or a satellite launch even before the end of the year. On the other hand, North Korea does run the risk of losing support from China and Russia if they take too provocative of measure, which would not serve their larger goal of continued economic development well. So, depending on what they understand to be redlines for China and Moscow, they may still refrain from such things as nuclear weapons tests to be able to preserve the cooperative arrangements they’ve been able to cultivate.”
CHO TAE-YONG, SOUTH KOREAN FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR AND VICE FOREIGN MINISTER
“There are largely three options – nuclear test, missile test, and conventional provocation. Nuclear testing and ICBM launch carry high risks as Trump would now no longer be able to brag about how there has not been major tests, and either of that would result in another United Nations Security Council resolution, and especially nuclear test would bring Chinese backlash. They could perhaps go conventional, such as a military provocation in the West Sea against South Korea, but that may not work for Trump or others. Therefore North Korea is more likely to opt for a missile test, it could be an submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) or an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) or a long-range one that can be masked as a satellite launch.”
“While we can’t completely rule out the possibility of a nuclear test or an ICBM test-launch, either of these two actions would be viewed as highly provocative and dangerous by the United States and others. At the top of my list of possible North Korean actions are a ‘satellite launch’ or an IRBM test flight over Japan and into the North Pacific. Kim Jong Un may have reason to believe that the United States’ reaction will be as muted in this event as it has been in response to other recent ballistic missile tests.”
ARTYOM LUKIN, PROFESSOR AT FAR EASTERN FEDERAL UNIVERSITY IN VLADIVOSTOK
“I remember a conversation that I had last June with a visiting North Korean official who pointedly asked what would be Russia’s response if North Korea gets no sanctions relief from the U.S. and makes ‘a strong move.’ I answered him that Moscow would essentially follow China in its reaction to Pyongyang’s possible escalation. I still stand by this assessment. The most intriguing question is whether Pyongyang got a nod from Beijing to escalate against the U.S. We have no way to know. But I presume that Beijing would not mind if Kim launches a long-range missile. A nuclear test is another matter – I don’t think China will be happy if North Korea resumes nuclear explosions.”
“Kim Jong Un at the plenum (may) announce a policy shift that would likely include ‘undoing’ some of the decisions made at the April 2018 plenum, starting with the moratorium on ICBM and nuclear testing. North Korea could conduct a test, either on the day of the plenum or in the next couple days, to show its resolve. I think it will start with something smaller, perhaps a medium-range missile, a satellite, or another SLBM, and work its way up next year. I think a return to byungjin (policy of simultaneously developing the military and economy), or some version of it, is likely... because of the subtler but important state media signaling over the past four months.
YANG XIYU, SENIOR FELLOW AT CHINA INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
“This new path is about self-reliance, self development of their economy and not relying on foreign countries. The other part is to develop their rockets. The recent continual launching of missiles is actually a prediction or a warning. Before they said they would work through dialogue to remove the sanctions against them and then develop their economy. However, if now there is no hope of resolving sanctions through dialogue, then it’s back to self-reliance.”
Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu in Beijing and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul. Editing by Lincoln Feast.