North Korean Weapon Test: A Signal For Washington?


The official North Korean News Agency (KCNA), of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) last week declared that the country has tested a guided weapon. While it is clear that the test was not of a nuclear or intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) nature, it has been termed by the KCNA as the one for an ultramodern but tactical guided weapon, meaning that the range of the weapon might not be long enough to reach the United States.

In addition to the weapon test, the North Korean government has asked the United States to replace Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, as Trump administration’s representative for negotiations with North Korea. This statement shows that North Korea is trying to gain diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis United States.

The response from the White House has been mild and cautious offering to engage Pyongyang in a constructive dialogue signalling that the Trump administration would not like to get the bilateral dialogue process derailed.

The reports of the North Korean guided weapon test, the first since the failure of the second United States-North Korea summit held in Vietnam in February 2019, has created anxieties about the prospects for peace in the region. It may be seen as a warning shot from Kim Jong-un clearly displaying his position that President Trump should resume the dialogue and keep his promise to avoid any confrontation with the pariah state. In his address at the Supreme People’s Assembly in early April, Mr. Kim had put the end of year 2019 as deadline for negotiations with the United States.

As per the June 12 Declaration, signed in Singapore in 2018 by President Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the United States and North Korea said both “will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”, and in return, the DPRK committed to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Clearly, Kim Jong-un is not satisfied with the steps Washington has taken so far in terms of lifting of sanctions, providing security guarantees to North Korea, and distancing itself from any military alliance with South Korea. Pyongyang is of the view that the US is only waiting for a substantive step by Kim Jong-un towards de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

For the United States, the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons is at the core of negotiations, and Mr. Trump has been making it amply clear that he wants a clear resolve on North Korea’s part to give up its nuclear arsenal. After the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile test in November 2017, North Korea had put nuclear/ICBM tests on hold. In April 2018 Kim Jong-un had declared that his country would not conduct further nuclear tests as it was not needed anymore. The North has uptill now, not made a U-turn on this.

The Trump-Kim talks have been the high on rhetoric and low in term of substantive outcome, it was widely believed that North Korea would not stay put for long and would go ahead with such a mild test to caution the United States.  The latest test is being seen as Pyongyang is trying to compel Washington to repeal some of the economic sanctions. The call to replace Mike Pompeo indicates that it is not willing to give up its nuclear weapons easily, and perhaps would also like to directly engage with President Trump.

Even though the second Trump–Kim summit in Hanoi had ended inconclusively; President Trump had given no hint that it was his last meeting with Kim Jong-un. There still is a possibility of another summit between Mr. Trump and Chairman Kim. Such a meeting, however, has to be preceded by some concrete steps by North Korea as well. Meanwhile, the North Korean leader is also visiting Russia in a bid to strengthen the relationship which will have its impact on the future of the US Korean talks. New Delhi wishes that all efforts must be made for a stable and peaceful Korean peninsula.

Script: Dr. Rahul Mishra, Strategic Analyst On East & South-East Asia