The Koreas

North Korean Missile Tests: Saber-Rattling for a Deal?

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The Koreas

North Korean Missile Tests: Saber-Rattling for a Deal?

What does Pyongyang want, and what should Washington and Seoul be prepared to give?

North Korean Missile Tests: Saber-Rattling for a Deal?
Credit: Flickr/ (stephan)

On Thursday, June 8, 2017, North Korea conducted another missile test, the tenth this year and the fourth since May 14. The intensity of these tests begs the question of, why?

The Associated Press, after a May 29 test, speculated that the goal might be to “test rivals, not technology”; AP’s reasoning is that Pyongyang did not announce the test to the populace but released a statement accusing Seoul and Washington of creating tension on the Korean peninsula through joint military drills. Moreover, the North’s official news agency, KCNA, reported that Kim Jong-un had watched a successful test of a new type of anti-aircraft guided weapon and ordered its mass-production and country-wide deployment to “spoil the enemy’s dream to command the air.”

Not mentioning the May 29 test to the people but using it to grab the attention of the outside world to air Pyongyang’s age-old grievances on the annual joint U.S.-ROK war games, and the allies’ mastery of the North Korean air space, suggests the plausibility of a diplomatic motive for the inordinate pace of missile tests of late. Furthermore, this theory is bolstered if one notes that the outside world has regularly decried each new missile test, but overlooked a very significant phenomenon of 2017: the absence of a nuclear test.

Another nuclear test was what concerned the United States the most early in 2017, with the allies’ research and defense agencies closely following new activities around the North’s nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri. North Korea’s advances in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology were a concern too. Thus, the focus of the U.S. foreign policy in the first months of President Donald Trump’s administration was not on the expected issues — China’s trade practices or even NAFTA — but on the North’s nuclear weapons progress.

Against this background, Trump apparently struck an understanding with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in early April to escalate pressure on North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs. Immediately after their summit, Chinese sources did indicate that Beijing had warned the North against renewed nuclear and long-range missile tests. At the time, with a crowd of foreign reporters invited to Pyongyang to celebrate the April 15 birthday of Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, a test of a new atomic warhead was widely anticipated. Yet no detonation has  occurred to date. Moreover, all the recent missile tests have been of short or mid-range platforms.

It appears that Pyongyang has ceded to the Trump-Xi pressure. The North may have realized that its inability to test improved nuclear weapons and ICBMs under intense external pressure would keep it from acquiring the mass-destruction power it has sought to force the United States to accommodate its foreign policy objectives. Hence Pyongyang may try to achieve those goals diplomatically, brandishing whatever menacing power has been built up, and forego expending resources for the further development of weapons requiring tests.

This line of speculation was accorded some credibility on May 29 when Trump tweeted that “North Korea shot yet another ballistic missile… but China is trying hard.” This tweet seems to affirm the existence of and continuing efficacy of a Mar-a-Lago deal. Defense Secretary James Mattis also said in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 3 that President Trump “was encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization” of North Korea.

The world can afford to interpret the ongoing North Korean behavior as a call for diplomacy. The question then becomes what diplomatic objectives is the North pursuing and whether Washington is ready to respond. On April 26, Washington issued a joint statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, the top diplomatic and security officials in the Trump administration, basically declaring that the North Korean programs of weapons of mass destruction will be resolved through negotiations with the North. Is this coincidence?  I think not, especially if one considers that Tillerson said as recently as March that the United States would not rule out a pre-emptive strike against the North’s nuclear program.  The April 26 joint statement represented an unexpected turn toward a diplomatic solution.

The goals of North Korea have been well spelled out and remain unchanged since the reign of Kim Il-sung.  They are: (1) force the United States to convert the Korean War Armistice of 1953 to a peace treaty to officially end the war; (2) effect a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Korea as a logical companion of the peace treaty; (3) terminate the U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty with the South; and (4) unify the two Koreas into a Democratic Confederal Republic of Korea (or Koryo, the title of an early Korean kingdom) under a Koreanist idea of “great national unity.” These objectives were reportedly conveyed to the White House in several letters by Kim Il-sung to President Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1978, when Carter put forth a plan to withdraw U.S. ground troops from the South. The letters reportedly demanded that the withdrawal be for all forces and the bilateral peace negotiations cover Korean unification as well. Adding the unification question to the bilateral agenda was technically justified because Seoul had opposed the armistice and refused to sign it.

Contained in the DCRK proposal were pitfalls designed to subvert the South. It envisages the continuing existence of the two Koreas with each maintaining existing institutions under the umbrella of the DCRK. Each side would reduce its military to 100,000 troops and combine them to form a national or confederal army. And each would abide by the Korean nationalist idea of great national unity. Under the latter, political parties of each side would operate freely in the other Korea, but the North would then be free to suppress noncommunist political activities, while the South would constitutionally keep honoring human rights. There are other pitfalls for South Korea under the DCRK whereby Kim Il-sung figured he could quickly subjugate South Koreans under his rule in the name of great national unity.

Conditions since the 1970s have changed dramatically; such pitfalls would not stymie South Koreans from influencing the denizens in the North under any degree of opening between the two sides. However, the dramatically advanced socioeconomic conditions in the South may actually work against it should Washington handle the predictable Northern proposal to trade denuclearization for a U.S.- North Korea peace treaty with less than great care.

The stipulations that all U.S. forces be pulled out from the South, and the U.S. defense treaty with South Korea be terminated, are depicted merely as logical companions of a peace treaty. However, even whispers of such terms becoming reality could throw South Korea into economic and social turmoil. The prosperity that the South has attained since the war is enormous but fragile. A huge part of the South’s wealth is close to the truce line. The booming stock market has attracted much foreign capital, which can flee quickly. The South Korean middle class is relatively large, but has a remarkably large debt load along with a disproportionate portion of its wealth in real estate. All these structural weaknesses of the South Korean economy call for extraordinary care in dealing with the peace treaty issues.

If Washington decided to sit down with Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un would likely demand that the United States not only sign a peace treaty but negotiate for a unified Korea. As noted, his stance has been handed down from Kim Il-sung, who stated in a 1978 speech that he asked Washington to agree on a peace treaty and “to negotiate for one Korea,” declaring that the United States should “abandon the wrong stance to perpetuate two Koreas.”

Despite the likelihood of a bilateral peace conference covering the unification issue, the U.S.-ROK alliance should not reject a peace offer if it ever comes. Seoul should think outside the box, ask Washington to assume a proxy negotiator role, and feed it with ideas to push the negotiations forward as far as possible.

Hysang Lee, professor of economics emeritus at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is the author of North Korea: A Strange Socialist Fortress (Praeger, 2001).