North Korea announced today that it will be officially suspending missile testing, and the nuclear test site where six nuclear tests were conducted in the past will be closed.
“From April 21, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report Saturday morning. The announcement comes less than a week before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are scheduled to meet in the first inter-Korean summit to be held in over a decade.
Placing a moratorium on nuclear missile tests, and shutting down the nuclear test site are very likely calculated moves by Pyongyang. As North Korea basks in the glow of increasing media adoration, the hope probably is that these moves will be viewed as example of how Kim Jong Un and his government’s sincerity towards denuclearization, and its desire to improve relations with South Korea, and ultimately the United States.
This news just broke a short time ago, and as more information becomes available, I will add a more in-depth update Saturday evening or Sunday morning.
A formal end to the Korean War could be days away from becoming a reality. There are growing indications that the two Koreas are planning to announce the official end to the conflict. The Korean War ended with a ceasefire. No peace treaty or other statutory permanent agreement followed, meaning the war has been technically raging for 68 years although major combat between UN and North Korean/Chinese forces ended in 1953. A number of skirmishes have taken place between Combined Forces (US & South Korea) and North Korean troops. A number of them occasionally threatened to escalate into a major conflict, such as the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the 1976 murders of two US officers at Panmunjon.
Ahead of next week’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, officials from both nations appear to be working out the details for announcing the official end to the war shortly before the summit begins. The move would benefit both leaders tremendously. For Moon, bringing about an end to the Korean War would enable him to walk away from the summit with a victory that would play very well with South Koreans. For his North Korean counterpart, it would hopefully send a signal to the world that Kim Jong Un’s softening stance is genuine.
An agreement ending the Korean War would also raise expectations for the planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that’s expected to take place within the next month. Preparations for the meeting have been progressing for some time. Over Easter weekend, current CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo allegedly met with Kim Jong Un according to the Washington Post. If true, the meeting confirms that high level Trump administration officials have been in contact with Un concerning plans for the summit, as Trump has indicated in recent days.
Tonight’s announcement by the South Korean national security adviser that President Trump and Kim Jung Un will meet sometime before May is already being widely hailed as a major step forward in defusing the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It could end up being exactly that, make no mistake. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise. We’ve been down this road once before in 1994. The US was coming perilously close to launching a military operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program while it was still in the embryonic stage. Pyongyang was feeling the heat, sanctions were impacting North Korea as it dealt with a major famine. Kim Jong Il, who had just taken over the duties of premier following the death of his father Kim Il Sung, indicated he wanted to open the door to negotiations with the United States.
Negotiations were held and brought about the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang gave up its ambitions for a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons grade material in exchange for US assurances it would not attack, as well as light water reactors that were resistant to nuclear proliferation uses. The agreement was troubled from the beginning, and as soon as US attention was diverted to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, the North Koreans bailed on the agreement entirely. A few short years later Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.
Kim Jong Un is trying something similar now. Pressure is building and the regime is starting to feel the pinch from sanctions. The odds are not in favor of Trump and Kim meeting face to face, let alone in favor of them reaching an agreement that ends the crisis once and for all. In all probability the North Koreans will conjure up a superficial excuse to use as justification for canceling the talks at the last minute. And in all likelihood they will lay the blame square on the United States.
In short, don’t be fooled by Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive, or apparent sincerity. He’s buying time, nothing more. The White House knows this is probably true, as does the Pentagon. Contrary to the beliefs of many people tonight, the US-North Korean standoff might be entering its most dangerous phase, instead of reaching a point where tensions begin to diminish for real.
Although the 2018 Winter Olympics in Peyongchang have come to an end, do not expect world attention to be fully removed from the Korean peninsula at any point in the near future. Instead, the focus is going to shift one hundred and eighty kilometers to the northwest, beyond the DMZ to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. After two weeks of basking in the adoration of the global media, and reaping the benefits of its well-orchestrated propaganda, and charm offensive, Kim Jong Un’s regime has returned to reality. The problems facing North Korea and its government before the Olympics began are still there, and appear to be intensifying at a brisk clip.
The Trump administration has unveiled a new round of economic sanctions aimed at the North and its nuclear weapons program. The United States continues to push hard for a stronger global stance on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile inventories, and programs. The Pentagon, and White House are under no illusions about the primary purposes behind the Kim’s propaganda offensive. Pyongyang needs to path as many obstacles in the path of the US in order to prevent it from launching military action against North Korea. Even more so, the North needs time to bring its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities to the point where Kim Jong Un feels his nation will be invulnerable to US attack. Once a functioning ICBM mated with a nuclear warhead exists in the North Korean arsenal, that’s the ballgame in Un’s eyes. The US will back off, seek ways to coexist with Pyongyang, and, most important, treat North Korea as an equal among nations. In other words, this is Kim’s pipedream fantasy.
On Sunday, a North Korean delegate at the Olympics indicated his nation is open to possible talks with the US. There was no meeting between US and North Korean officials during the games. Before the opening ceremonies though, Vice President Pence was expected to meet with the North Korean representative, but the North cancelled the meeting at the last second. Now, it would appear that Pyongyang is dangling the prospect of negotiations in front of the US in an effort to make it appear to the world that the North Korean government is making a sincere effort to defuse tensions. Seoul is also pushing for US-North Korean talks. The sticking point is the inclusion of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the talks. The Trump administration has stated the subject must be addressed in any talks with North Korea, while Pyongyang, unsurprisingly, wants the subject to be excluded from future talks with the US.
In other words, North Korea has no intentions of ending its nuclear program, or halting development of an ICBM. Kim doesn’t expect negotiations with the United States to produce anything of value other than to buy more time for his nuclear and ballistic missile programs to reach the next level. And that has been the purpose behind North Korea’s actions for some time now.
It is no secret that relations between the United States and Russia have been tumbling downhill for an extended period of time. Last week’s indictments of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian groups on charges related to attempted meddling in US elections and political process raises the possibility of even chillier relations, and heightened tensions looming in the weeks and months ahead. The indictments are not the only telltale sign of trouble on the horizon.
In Syria, the convoluted situation on the ground and in the skies has created an environment where a direct confrontation between US and Russian forces could come about with very little warning. There have been a high number of close calls in the air over the last six months, leading military officials in the Pentagon to question whether or not deconfliction channels are working as well as advertised. Added to that are the increasing number of reports surfacing in the media that a US airstrike killed a number of Russian military contractors in northern Syria on 7 February. Moscow has downplayed the reports, possibly to prevent questions rising about just why Russian mercenaries were operating in the area of an oil and natural gas field controlled by a US-supported militia. It’s becoming apparent that a US airstrike in support of the militia forces did take place, resulting in perhaps 20-30 Russian citizens having been killed. How or even if Russia will respond is unknown. Given Moscow’s reluctance to shed light on its Syrian operations, a Russian response will probably happen in the shadows and away from the roving eyes of the media, and other observers.
Circumstances being what they are, conditions are turning ripe for an wholly new cold war to blossom in Syria, and in other places where US and Russian interests are at odds. Whether it comes about by design, or happenstance remains to be seen. Moscow and Washington would prefer to keep the current competition in the shadows for as long as possible. Eventually, the maneuvering will be pushed out into the open, and the intentions and objectives of both sides will become clear. That will be the point when things run the risk of turning into a full blown cold war between the United States and Russia, or becoming something even more dangerous.