It has been an active and eventful last thirty-six hours around the world and the trend will likely continue at least in the short term. Terrorism in Europe, and the growing possibility of a contested election in the United States are the main headlines dominating the headlines at the moment, but beneath the surface there are other issues worthy of a brief mention.
In Vienna the final casualty count for Monday’s terrorist attack in Vienna is four dead and twenty-two. Contrary to reports of multiple gunmen that went out as the attack was underway, there was only one shooter involved. The attacker was identified as Fejzulai Kujtim, a 20-year-old Austrian male of North Macedonian descent. He was convicted in 2019 for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison and released on parole last December. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack even though the link between it and Fejzulai is dubious at best. The Austrian government has also labeled the gunman as an Islamic terrorist and naturally considers the attack to have been of terror origin.
The Vienna attack came days after another Islamic terror attack in Nice, France. With much of the continent now going into another COVID-19 lockdown, there’s concern more attacks could be coming. In fact the United Kingdom has upgraded its terror level to ‘Severe’ in the wake of the Nice and Vienna attacks. This level indicates an attack is deemed highly likely. The move was sensible, given recent events. It is also quite logical to assume that more attacks will be coming in the days and weeks ahead.
In the United States, the 2020 presidential election has yet to be called. I will not delve too deeply into the situation at present except to say that the results may not be known for some time. It would appear that there are court battles looming that potentially may go all the way to the US Supreme Court. However, the election has affected global markets, and left many US allies wondering when the election results will be known.
I was hoping to get to the next installment of the Sino-Indian Crisis piece, but I’m still 24 hours or so behind schedule. It will be posted by Thursday morning. Apologies for the delay.
Since late December North Korea’s government has undertaken a massive propaganda effort to prepare its citizens for difficult times ahead. The optimism, and expectations following almost two years of discussions between Kim Jong Un, and President Trump appear to have faded away entirely in Pyongyang. The writing on the wall has become painstakingly clear. There will not be a new age of more open relations between North Korea and the world. There will be no economic enrichment after decades of depression-era living conditions inside of the North. Relations between the US and North Korea appear to be regressing to what they were pre-2018.
The government has been using state media, propaganda, and public events to warn the population of increased US and international pressure, and further economic hardship in the months to come. During last weekend’s Lunar New Year celebration a major theme was celebrating the national leader’s ability to overcome adversity. This is hardly a new message, yet the timing suggests that North Korean leadership is not counting on any improvement on the diplomatic front happening anytime soon.
Publicly, North Korea is telling the world it is no longer compelled to halt nuclear and missile tests, pointing to the United States’ failure to meet the year-end deadline imposed by Kim as the reason. In private, however, North Korean officials have indicated their government is still seeking sanctions relief. How the North plans on obtaining that relief is unclear. Over the weekend reports surfaced concerning a spike in vehicle activity at the Sanumdong missile research center. Experts suggest it could mean preparations are underway for a new missile test at some point in the coming weeks. These reports dovetail nicely with Friday’s comments by US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper about North Korea obviously attempting to build a long-range nuclear weapon (an ICBM more or less) with the ability to carry a nuclear weapon.
If this is the path North Korea believes will lead to sanctions relief, Kim Jong Un had better think again.
North Korea is a flashpoint threatening to burst even before 2020 is upon us. December has seen the tension in northeast Asia ratchet up amid vague North Korean threats and Trump administration assurances that it will contend with any North Korean ‘Christmas Gift’ decisively. Just one week remains until the North Korea-imposed end of the year deadline for the US to make concessions and revive the stalled nuclear talks takes effect. There has been widespread speculation concerning what action North Korea could take if the deadline passes without US concessions.
The greatest concern in Washington is that North Korea’s ‘Christmas Gift’ winds up being a provocative action that demands a swift, decisive US response. A long-range missile test is a perfect example of something that would leave the US no choice but to take action. Testing a missile with enough range to reach US territory is a red line. Should it be crossed by Kim Jong Un, the end result will almost certainly be a US military response of some sort.
North Korea’s ultimate goal is to persuade the United States to roll back the economic sanctions now in place while maintaining its status as a nuclear power. Where the US has sought to inextricably link sanction relief and denuclearization, North Korea has gone to extremes to keep them separate. There are signs of internal political pressure starting to build on the Pyongyang regime, and this could be one of the factors prompting Kim to adopt a hardline status. Contrary to some of the inaccurate assessments of the North Korean leader by a number of talking-heads in the media, Kim Jong Un is undoubtedly playing the role of a rational actor in this drama. His overall strategy has been predicated on regime survival and maintaining his position as supreme leader.
As it stands right now on this Christmas Day, North Korea’s vague threats are intended to keep the world guessing for at least another week. This is a topic that will undoubtedly be written about frequently in the coming days so I’m going to end it here for the moment.
As relations between the United States and North Korea started to grow less hostile in the spring months of 2018 it was apparent any period of détente that emerged between the two nations would likely contain a relatively short shelf life. In light of the direction events, and dialogue have been going in through recent days, it’s safe to say the expiration date is approaching. The differences between the positions of North Korea and the United States over the direction of negotiations on the future are wide, and unwavering. Pyongyang wants US policy to shift away from requiring unilateral denuclearization without any relief from the layers of economic negotiations currently in place. The US, of course, will not provide relief until denuclearization is underway.
Earlier this week, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called for the US to change its ‘hostile policies’ and insisted it was up to the US to determine what type of Christmas gift it would receive this year. This statement was followed up on Saturday by North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song. In a press conference he said denuclearization has been removed from the negotiating table with the US. Today, President Trump warned that the good relationship between him and Kim Jong Un was on shaky ground as reports have surfaced indicating North Korea has resumed testing at the Sohae Satellite Launching Grounds. This missile test site was one supposedly closed down when US and North Korean relations were warming up. Trump said that the North has everything to lose by acting aggressively.
There is also the end of the year deadline set by Pyongyang to consider. It calls for the US to change its demands for North Korean denuclearization. If that does not occur, Kim Jong Un has warned that North Korea could decide to take a ‘new path’ in 2020. The growing concern is that the ‘new path’ will be a return to long-range missile and nuclear bomb testing. If this turns out to be the case, the war of words presently underway between the United States and North Korea could escalate to a more dangerous level rather quickly.
A North Korean weapons test earlier this weekend has raised questions and concerns about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s intentions regarding denuclearization, and the rut which US-North Korean negotiations appear to be caught in at the moment. Initial reports suggesting ballistic missiles were part of the test firing turned out to be false. South Korean military officials have confirmed that several multiple launch rocket projectiles were fired, including a new tactical guided weapon. Kim was on hand to witness the test, his presence suggesting it was intended to be seen as more than just a simple test firing.
Since Hanoi, negotiations on denuclearization have shown no progress. North Korea has renewed demands that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be excluded from negotiations. In late April, Kim made his first official trip to Russia, attempting to expand his international profile while at the same time sending a message to Washington. The US does not want to see North Korea and Russia growing closer and invariably opening the door for Vladimir Putin to disrupt negotiations.
The Trump administration continues to believe a denuclearization deal can be reached. This morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo supported President Trump’s position and reminded the world that this weekend’s North Korean weapons test did not pose a threat to South Korea, Japan, or the United States. The door is still open for North Korea, yet its apparent the Trump administration is not willing to wait indefinitely, and will not ease the strict economic sanctions currently in place.
North Korea is facing another growing problem. A food shortage is gripping the country following the worst harvest in over a decade. The current crisis is not approaching famine territory yet, however, in a matter of months this could change. It will be interesting to see how the deteriorating food situation will affect negotiations with the United States in the coming weeks. There’s a strong possibility that Washington’s patience could begin to wane if no progress is made soon.
Author’s Note: The next entry in the South China Sea series will come next Monday instead of tomorrow. Apologies for the abrupt change but the series will resume next week.