Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are now in Asia for discussions with their South Korean and Japanese opposites. US/South Korea military exercises are now underway in South Korea, and Pyongyang has resumed its cryptic rhetoric. The stage appears set for North Korea to conduct a weapons test to check the waters, so to speak, and to serve as a reminder to the US about what the future could hold if economic sanctions are not lifted. Ove the past 15 years or so, North Korea has traditionally conducted weapons tests and other types of provocative actions in the early days of new US and South Korean administrations. In light of the events mentioned above, and the fact that the Biden administration is only two months old, a weapons test by North Korea now would not come as a surprise.
On Monday, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong released a rather cryptic statement. “We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off [gun] powder smell in our land. If it [the U.S.] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.” The statement is the first official North Korean reaction since Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration’s attempts to resume talks with North Korea have so far been unsuccessful. Pyongyang has been radio silent, so to speak. However, with senior US administration officials now in the region to discuss, among other topics, North Korea, Kim Jong Un might decide this is a convenient time to stage a weapons test. A move which will serve to inform the Biden administration that more work is needed before discussions between the two nations can pick up again.
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.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis will travel to Macedonia this weekend as Macedonians prepare to vote on a referendum at the end of the month. If passed, it would change the name of the country from Macedonia to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, and open the door to EU and NATO membership for the Balkan nation. Macedonia, and Greece have been locked in a dispute over the former’s name for decades. In June, the two nations reached an agreement to settle the matter. The referendum set for 30 September will determine if Macedonian voters will support the measure or not. Mattis is the latest US official to visit Macedonia. A number of politicians and government officials from the US, and European nations have been visited in recent weeks, encouraging Macedonians to approve the referendum. Nationalists in Macedonia and Greece have bitterly opposed the name change. Last weekend riots broke out in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki as nationalist groups gathered there and demonstrated.
Mattis is concerned about ‘the kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia.’ Russia is less than pleased about Macedonia’s pivot to the West, viewing the referendum as an attempt by NATO and the US to interfere in an area that has traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence. Over the summer, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats after accusing them of bribing an unnamed official to undermine the deal that was agreed to between Skopje and Athens. Russia’s ambassador in Macedonia has recently warned that the country could become a legitimate target if relations between the NATO and Russia do not improve. In July, Macedonia was formally invited to begin the process towards NATO membership. Moscow has opposed the move and this opposition has helped bring about concerns of Soviet mischief aimed at influencing voters in the days leading up to the referendum.