Kim Jong-un’s campaign of “maximum pressure” against the United States has continued despite the pageantry of the June 30 summit between him and U.S. President Donald Trump at the inter-Korean Military Demarcation Line.
In July alone – a little more than three weeks after that summit – Kim was photographed inspecting a new submarine and overseeing tests of a new short-range ballistic missile system – which poses a huge threat to South Korea-based missile defence systems – and a new multiple-launch rocket system.
The submarine inspection marked the first time since February 2018 that North Korea had shown the world any military hardware explicitly intended to carry and launch nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Slowly but surely, Kim is ramping up the volume on his continued development of nuclear capabilities.
The objective of this campaign of pressure is straightforward. After the failed Hanoi summit, which Trump and Kim left without any agreement, Kim has said he seeks a “bold decision” from Washington before the end of the year. That “bold decision” pertains to its position on sanctions relief.
Unless the U.S. negotiating position shifts away from what it was in Hanoi, to open space for a possible “small deal” under which North Korea makes some concessions for some tangible sanctions relief, Kim will return to his old ways.
Internally, Kim has emphasised to the ruling Workers’ Party that he remains committed to a strong and self-reliant national defence. July’s military activities tell the party elite that Kim is serious and clear-eyed about negotiations with the United States.
South Korea, too, has been the target of criticism by the North. Pyongyang has lashed out at the prospect of the forthcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercises, citing a promise that Trump supposedly gave Kim during the June 30 meeting. U.S. officials have not corroborated the North Korean account.
A statement from North Korea also criticised South Korea for taking delivery of two F-35A stealth fighters in July. Pyongyang said the delivery was evidence of the South Korean government’s dual-track approach: favouring inter-Korean peace talks while continuing to purchase military hardware.
Needless to say, in this context the prospect of a quick return to working-level talks appears unlikely. July 2019 will be remembered as a month that began with great optimism about the ability of both sides to right the ship that went off-course after Hanoi – and that ended with a return to pessimism.
For Kim, one important source of confidence may be the recent successful summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Xi’s visit to Pyongyang, in particular, cemented Chinese support for Kim’s leadership and granted him greater room to manoeuvre in the diplomatic process with the United States.
As we enter the final five months of 2019 and move nearer to Kim’s end-of-year deadline for the U.S., the possibility of further provocation remains very much open. North Korea’s missile tests continue to represent violations of 11 United Nations Security Council resolutions put in place since 2006 to constrain its weapons programmes.
August is likely to be turbulent if the U.S. and South Korea proceed with their regularly scheduled defensive military exercises. As we near the two-year anniversary of Trump’s 2017 threat to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea, these developments are a reminder of the instability that might lie ahead.
Time will tell whether Kim will need to keep upping the pressure on Washington, or Washington will decide that a path back to talks will require difficult compromises. For South Korea, which now has to contend with new North Korean missile tests chipping away at the inter-Korean progress of last year, the stakes are higher than ever.
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post. It is republished here with kind permission.