The escalating tensions in the Middle East in the wake of a fatal US drone attack on a top Iranian military commander last week have heightened uncertainties over the stalled nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
North Korea may judge it has more room to maneuver, with the US focusing on the intensifying standoff with Iran that could flare up into a full-scale war.
The upsurge in the conflict between Washington and Tehran comes amid the North’s repeated threats to return to provocations such as launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in a bid to draw concessions from the US. In his New Year’s message at a key ruling party meeting last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the world would witness a “new strategic weapon” in the near future. He warned of a “shocking actual action” while accusing US President Donald Trump’s administration of stalling for time in pursuit of its own political interests.
Washington certainly does not want to see Pyongyang increasing provocations when it is coping with heightened tensions with Tehran. Trump has regarded the North’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests as a key foreign policy accomplishment he can boast of as he is entering a reelection campaign this year.
Pyongyang may be gauging whether and when to ditch that ban to put maximum pressure on the Trump administration to make significant concessions to the recalcitrant regime in the nuclear negotiations.
It may also move to cooperate with Iran’s nuclear program, or hint at the possibility of doing so, in an additional attempt to increase its bargaining power. Tehran announced Sunday that it would forgo the limits under a 2015 nuclear agreement with major global powers, from which Washington withdrew in 2018.
Though he continues to leave the door open for talks with the North, Trump may not want to be seen as making concessions, particularly as he faces an impeachment trial in the US Senate.
Rather, the fatal airstrike on the key Iranian general could mean that Trump would respond to Pyongyang’s crossing of a red line by opting for a military option -- not by easing sanctions on the impoverished regime as it clings to its nuclear arsenal.
It may be difficult to compare a nuclear-armed North Korea with Iran, which is at the initial stage of its nuclear capabilities.
But Trump’s impromptu decision to order the killing of the Iranian military commander makes it hard to anticipate what action he might take if he sees Pyongyang’s provocations as severe enough to harm US security interests and his own reelection prospects.
The thought of being hit by a drone attack at any time might frighten Kim more than surgical strikes on selected nuclear facilities and missile launch sites in the North. Defense experts here believe the US recently deployed the same type of drones that killed the Iranian general at an air base in South Korea.
In December, Pyongyang’s state media released photos of Kim, along with his wife and senior military officials, riding white horses on the snow-covered Paektusan. Less than two months earlier, Kim was pictured riding a white horse alone on the reclusive state’s highest mountain.
Now, Kim may be thinking that he might endanger his life if he staged any further symbolic acts to demonstrate his resolve to endure the difficulties facing his regime.
North Korea has refrained from issuing any direct criticism of Friday’s drone strike by the US. In what could be viewed as the regime’s first official response to the attack, its state-run news agency reported Monday that China and Russia expressed concerns over regional situations being worsened by the US’ illegal acts, referring to Saturday’s phone conversation between the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers.
This roundabout response may be seen as signaling Pyongyang will not go so far as to make a grave provocation that the Trump administration might regard as stepping over the line.
It may opt to be entrenched for a protracted standoff with the US on the back of support from China and Russia.
The diversion of Washington’s attention from the North Korean nuclear issue amid the escalating conflict with Tehran could allow Pyongyang to buy time to refine its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities.
International sanctions on the regime should continue to be tightened to make it pay a high price for its refusal to denuclearize.
In this regard, President Moon Jae-in’s government in Seoul should refrain from taking steps that could hamper concerted efforts with Washington in handling the North.
It should also cope with the US-Iran confrontation strategically so as to strengthen the alliance between Seoul and Washington, which many worry has frayed since Moon took office in 2017.