North Korea Update: Possible Nuclear Test and Economic Trouble On The Horizon

There are growing indications that North Korea is moving forward with plans for its first nuclear weapons test in over four years. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise lately, though this has been underreported in light of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Kim Jong Un promised to continue development of its nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed.” This has prompted concerns that a test will be scheduled to disrupt the late May visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea. Chinese and South Korea diplomats met in Seoul on Tuesday with China pledging to play a ‘constructive role’ in attempting to get North Korea to resume negotiations.

South Korea, with a new administration taking power on 10 May, is quite interested in deterring North Korea from escalating the situation. One element that appears to be coaxing the North along the slippery path it’s on at present is Russia. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have forged close ties over the years and the North is one of the few nations supporting Russia in its war without misgivings. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia could return the favor by blocking a UN effort to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if it does move forward with a nuclear test.

Having said this, it must be mentioned that the global economic fallout from Russia’s adventure in Ukraine and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China could hit the North Korean economy especially hard. Supply chain issues now coming into play will exacerbate food shortages. Inflation will also play a greater role. Food prices in North Korea often mirror global prices. With food prices rising around the world, the North’s prices are expected to do the same in the coming weeks, taking the country’s economic issues from bad to worse in the process.

The View From Pyongyang

A few weeks ago concern and speculation about North Korea’s alleged ‘Christmas Surprise’ was reaching a fever pitch. Following the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, and the US killing of Qasem Soleimani, global attention shifted to the latest crisis with Iran. Now that tensions with Tehran appear to be settling down, albeit temporarily in all likelihood, North Korea will come back into focus. One of the conversations starting to swirl around Washington DC right now is based on whether or not Kim Jong Un will take any lessons away from the latest US-Iran confrontation.

The Trump administration acted decisively on Iran over the past week. A major confrontation with Iran was avoided, although the US was prepared to retaliate against Iran if its attacks against two airbases in Iraq had produced US casualties. The Iranian regime looked at the gameboard and wisely decided to step away. President Trump reiterated his promise to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, yet in the next breath he left the door open to future negotiations.

What conclusions should Pyongyang deduce from the Trump administration’s handling of Iran? More important, how will it affect the present state of the US-North Korean relationship?  Considering the mindset of the current North Korean leader and his closest ministers, Kim Jong Un could regard the killing of Soleimani as a warning not to provoke the US with more long-range missile tests. On the flip side, Kim could view the US preoccupation with events in the Middle East as an opportunity for North Korea to continue building its nuclear deterrent. Unfortunately for Kim, he laid out a detailed plan of action for the upcoming year at the meeting of the Central Committee in late December. He declared an end to the moratorium on long range missile and nuclear tests, and hinted on the coming of a ‘new strategic weapon.’ Despite the fact he is the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim could be compelled to follow the path he personally laid out even though the strategic conditions may have already shifted. Although the North Korean government appears to the world to be uniform in ideology, and loyalty to Kim, rival factions do exist and the leader could be feeling some pressure from a handful of these, especially those holding influence over the nation’s military.

Friday 20 April, 2018 Update: North Korea to End Missile Tests & Close Nuclear Testing Site

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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.

 

 

Sunday 3 September Brief Update: Sixth North Korean Nuclear Test

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North Korea’s sixth nuclear test came earlier on Sunday and it was the most powerful device yet tested. Twenty four hours earlier, Kim Jong Un was boasting to the world that his nation now possessed a hydrogen bomb that can be fitted atop an ICBM. Whether or not it was a hydrogen device that was tested is practically a moot point at this time. Earlier in the summer, estimates making the rounds in some defense and foreign policy circles concluded that North Korea would have a hydrogen device within six to eighteen months. For myself, and many of my colleagues, this was a realistic timeframe given what was known about the North’s nuclear program. They probably do not have a hydrogen device that can be mounted on an ICBM yet either. The process of miniaturizing a device in order to fit on an ICBM is a complex, time consuming process. Kim’s legion of scientists and nuclear experts likely aren’t there yet.

But they will get there eventually unless something is done soon.

*Author’s note: Cutting this post short to try and enjoy a bit of the holiday. I’ll be back posting on Tuesday. I hope all of you are having a nice Labor Day weekend.*

 

Wednesday 12 April, 2017 Update: Chances of North Korean Nuclear Test Are Increasing

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The world is gradually coming around to the realization that this period of increased US-North Korean tension contrasts dangerously from those in the past eight years. President Trump is playing the game in a remarkably different manner than his predecessor did. Obama’s policy of Strategic Patience did not produce results, in large part because there was no incentive or deterrent for North Korea to change its attitude and behavior. North Korea conducted ballistic missile test launches without fear of reprisal from the United States or regional powers.

Trump’s approach has been very different and for better or worse it has produced visible results so far. How this translates to the big picture cannot be determined quite yet. Following last week’s meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping things began to happen though. The tone of the North Korean discussion changed dramatically from Washington to Beijing. China is rejecting North Korean coal shipments, depriving Pyongyang of a much needed infusion of money. The USS Carl Vinson and her battlegroup were ordered to the Sea of Japan. Jinping has agreed to work with the US to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Reports of Chinese forces massing on the PRC’s border with North Korea are increasing. Ostensibly, the troop movements are to deal with a potential surge of refugees crossing over if North Korea and the US find themselves at war.

What if that’s not the case at all? What if a move against Kim Jong Un is being prepared at the moment and the large number of troops China has in motion is not intended to deal with refugees, but to act as a stabilization force or sorts in the event North Korea’s leadership is decapitated and the nation is left rudderless? In light of the actions and movements since last Friday, the questions are rational.

Kim Jong Un has yet to come to the realization that the man he is contending with in Washington is not Barack Obama. Un’s bellicose rhetoric and borderline reckless actions are bringing North Korea closer to the proverbial point of no return. At this point in the game less is more. Unfortunately, Un’s actions are guided in great part by his ego, and limited understanding of the world beyond North Korea’s borders. He is singlehandedly placing his nation in a precarious position. Even China is reconsidering exactly how valuable its ally to the south truly is.

Today, rumors started to circulate about an upcoming North Korean nuclear test. US intelligence has picked up on an increasing amount of activity in and around North Korean nuclear sites. In Pyongyang, the government has advised foreign journalists to expect a ‘big and important’ event to occur on Thursday. At present, given the amount of activity and flow of events, I’ll venture to guess there is a 60% chance of a North Korean nuclear test taking place at some point in the next 18-36 hours.

Logically, testing a nuclear weapon in the midst of a deteriorating crisis is not the smartest move to make, logically speaking. Unfortunately, logic and North Korea rarely appear in the same sentence. Kim Jong Un is probably starting to feel cornered, thus he is resorting to a practice that has worked for him before. The difference now in 2017 is that the old game he is playing has new players and new rules.