SEOUL—North Korea appears to have tested an engine capable of propelling an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead to a distant target—that is, an American target.
The move comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mingles action with a return to insulting rhetoric and a hardened negotiating posture to get the U.S. to agree to his terms by the fast-approaching end of the year.
North Korea’s state media said Sunday the test had been “very important” and there is little reason to doubt that as Kim ratchets up the pressure.
“If it is indeed a static engine test for a new solid or liquid fuel missile, it is yet another loud signal that the door for diplomacy is quickly slamming, if it hasn’t already,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear affairs expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. “This could be a very credible signal of what might await the world after the New Year.”
The North conducted its sixth, most recent, underground test of a nuclear warhead in September 2017, and its last ICBM test in November 2017, which showed it was at least theoretically capable of hitting any city in the United States. There was an explosion of rhetoric on both sides, with U.S. President Donald Trump threatening “fire and fury” against “Rocket Man,” and Kim discovering the word “dotard” to describe Trump as a doddering old man.
But since the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit in Singapore, Trump has claimed his diplomatic efforts with Kim were a success—“problem solved”—pointing to the fact ICBM and nuclear tests were put on hold as proof of Kim’s good faith. Kim, for his part, said even before the summit that he had achieved the nuclear deterrence he wanted, and few analysts have believed he would give that up.
Now we are back to the days of the dotard, and North Korea rhetoric dramatizes fast-fading hopes for reconciliation despite a series of post-Singapore meetings Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have held with Kim to try to get him to abandon his nuclear program before there could be sanctions relief.
Kim wants the relief to come first, or in stages, while holding on to his nukes, and after numerous warnings for the U.S. to knuckle under, the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) claimed the latest test would “have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK”—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for Kim’s country—“in the near future."
The KCNA statement did not get into details, but the inference was plain: the test at the Sohae satellite launch site on the North’s west coast was intended to show Kim intended to back up words with deeds.
“The Kim regime knows that U.S. surveillance flights and satellites are watching,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “With the activity at Sohae, Pyongyang is also trying to raise international concerns that it may intensify provocations and walk away from denuclearization talks next year.”
The announcement of the test was clearly a studied affront to Trump, who has frequently talked up the great relationship he formed in three meetings with Kim. Trump eventually said they had such great “chemistry” that they “fell in love.” But even before the engine test, Trump was getting the message the romance was over. Last week, he reverted to the harsh language that he used at the United Nations in September 2017 when he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” while “rocket man” was “on a suicide mission.”
At a meeting of NATO leaders in London last week, Trump remarked almost whimsically about Kim, “He definitely likes sending rockets up, doesn't he” and “that's why I call him Rocket Man.”
The memory of that awful term prompted Choe Son Hui, the North’s vice foreign minister and a key figure in dealings with the U.S., to suggest the American president was suffering once again “the dotage of a dotard.”
By the time Trump got back to Washington, the badinage was escalating, raising the specter again of war on the Korean peninsula. Yes, “there is a certain hostility, no question about it,” Trump acknowledged, even though he said he believed he still had “a very good relationship with Kim,” whom he last saw in a dramatic, almost impromptu, unscripted, rendezvous in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas last June.
The missile engine test and the escalating rhetoric are not the only factors in the rising tensions. Recently, Kim has showed off his macho instincts as a strong leader, a man of destiny—literally the man on a white horse—on two occasions when he rode on a strapping white stallion on the snow-covered slopes of Mount Paektu, Korea’s tallest mountain, near the border with China.
Kim’s appearances on Paektu, the second time with eight or nine senior leaders also on white horses, drew on symbolism designed to appeal to the heart strings of his people, or at least reinforce his regime’s mythology.
Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, supposedly was born in a cabin on the slopes of Mt. Paektu, the proud heir of the dynasty’s founder, Kim Il Sung. In fact, Kim Jong Il is known to have been born in a village near Khabarovsk in the Russian far east while his father was an officer in the Soviet Red Army, but such details shouldn’t bother a man on a white horse.
Now, it seems, Kim Jong Un has no desire to meet Trump again unless he’s got some guarantee the U.S. will back down from its insistence that he give up the North’s nuclear program. The day before the test at Sohae, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Kim Song, ruled out another Kim-Trump summit, especially since their second summit in Hanoi at the end of February had ended disastrously when Trump walked out.
Kim Song was responding to condemnation of the North’s nuclear program by six NATO allies of the U.S., saying simply, “We do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now.” He added ominously but obviously, “Denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiating table.”
Earlier, Ri Thae Song, like Choe a vice foreign minister, called U.S. pleas for dialogue “nothing but a foolish trick” to use “in favor of the political situation and election in the U.S.” It was, he said menacingly, “entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get."
Trump, in Washington, sought to give the impression that he wouldn’t come to terms just for the sake of the presidential election next year, or indeed the current impeachment hearings, and he thinks Kim understands. “He knows I have an election coming up,” he said at the White House. “I don't think he wants to interfere with that."
“There is no good reason to believe that Kim Jong Un ever intended to give up his nuclear weapons program,” said David Straub, former political counsellor at the U.S. embassy in Seoul. There was, he said, “every reason to believe that he sought to make use of Donald Trump's ignorance and incompetence.”
Now, said Straub, Kim “is using vague but ominous threats in a further effort to prompt Trump to give him what he really seeks—an end to sanctions against his regime and the withdrawal of the United States from the Korean Peninsula while Kim keeps his nuclear weapons.”