The news that North Korea tested an unspecified new weapons system last week is yet another sign that its denuclearization talks with the US have reached a crossroads. The latest development, however, should not fan excessive pessimism.
What is obvious is that North Korea, by announcing the testing of an unspecified “new up-to-date tactical weapon” in the presence of leader Kim Jong-un, wanted to send a message to the US, which it accuses of obstructing the denuclearization talks.
Most importantly, the North Korean state media report is the first about a new weapon since the North test-fired the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile last November.
This is a blow to US President Donald Trump, who has touted the North’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile testing as a major victory for his diplomacy with the North.
The new weapon, which South Korean experts believe to be a long-range artillery system, may not pose the same threat to the US as a nuclear-tipped ICBM. But the announcement that weapons testing has resumed has implications, considering the timing -- so soon after Trump said he would not rush through talks with the North and would maintain the toughest sanctions ever.
The North, after the suspension of its nuclear and missile tests and the destruction of a nuclear testing site and a missile-launching facility, had pressured the US to take “corresponding” actions -- namely, to alleviate sanctions and guarantee the North’s safety by declaring an end to the Korean War. The US, meanwhile, insisted that North Korea first take additional steps.
The stalemate resulted in the cancellation of planned talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart earlier this month.
The cancellation was followed by intensive US media reports about continuing missile-development activities in the North, which heightened skepticism about the North’s commitment to disarmament.
The skepticism has grown to the point where some US media and experts argue that the Trump administration is falling for deception by the Kim regime. Some US Congress members have even publicly expressed opposition to the plans for a second summit between Trump and Kim early next year.
The North, perhaps, wanted to test a new weapons system as a warning to those US hard-liners that it can go back to confrontation at any time.
What’s noteworthy, however, is that the North apparently wanted to send the message without signaling any intention to derail the denuclearization talks.
The North Korean media clarified that the new weapon was a tactical one that had been under development since the North Korean leader’s late father, Kim Jong-il, was in power.
Another sign that the North did not want to abandon diplomacy with the US is the release of an American citizen who had been detained near the North Korean border with China. The announcement of the deportation of Bruce Byron Lowrance came on the same day that the North Korean media reported the new weapons test.
Secretary Pompeo immediately welcomed and expressed appreciation for the North Korean decision to release the US citizen. The North had released three American citizens -- all Korean-Americans -- in May ahead of the historic summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore.
But these goodwill gestures should not make one overly optimistic about the prospects of peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear and missile problems.
The fundamental problem is that the North is still refusing to take further denuclearization steps, such as declaring the full list of related facilities and materials and accepting outside inspections. Instead, the Pyongyang government is only demanding sanctions relief and security guarantees from the US side.
It is the job of governments like those of South Korea and the US to persuade or pressure the North to act first. For instance, an early Trump-Kim summit could restart the momentum to accelerate the denuclearization process.