North Korea missile launches: Dear Leader’s temper tantrum?


Or just a return to the status quo ante? Despite Donald Trump’s attempts to reset the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington via personal diplomacy, North Korea has returned to conducting missile testing, albeit only short-range ballistic missiles at the moment. In the wake of new launches this morning, NBC’s Richard Engel tells Today that it’s a product of Kim Jong-un’s “frustration” over a lack of progress in talks:

In part, however, this is a reaction to upcoming joint US-South Korea military exercises, which is another return to the status quo ante. Just as the US had unilaterally dispensed with joint military exercises, the North had halted its missile testing. Now they’re both back, at least tentatively:

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles early on Wednesday, the South Korean military said, only days after it launched two similar missiles intended to pressure South Korea and the United States to stop upcoming military drills.

The firings follow launches on July 25, North Korea’s first missile tests since leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met on June 30 and agreed to revive stalled denuclearization talks. …

Later on Wednesday, state news agency KCNA repeated calls for the United States and South Korea to end their “hostile” joint drills, but did not mention the missile launches.

“It is a prerequisite for improving the inter-Korean relations and ensuring peace on the Korean peninsula to call an overall and permanent halt to anti-North war drills, the root cause of confrontation and war,” it said in a commentary.

Moves by the United States and South Korea to rename the approaching exercises were simply double-dealing that proved “confrontational maniacs remain unchanged in their black-hearted intention to stifle” North Korea by force, it added.

This is a chicken-egg argument. North Korea started testing missiles before the announcement of the joint exercises, even after Trump flew to the DMZ and encouraged Kim to meet him there in friendship. The Hanoi summit turned out to be a bust for Kim, who wanted — perhaps needed? — some sanctions relief as an outcome without giving up much of anything, but until Pyongyang started launching missiles, the door was still somewhat open.

One has to wonder whether Kim isn’t coming under pressure himself. He might be getting trapped by extreme hardliners who don’t want any kind of rapprochement with the US and ultimately want a forced reunification under the Kim regime. Or Kim might be coming under pressure from China, which could use a bargaining chip in the trade war with the US to win some concessions for more cooperation on the Korean situation.

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At any rate, this looks a little more complex than just a temper tantrum. The return to the posturing of pre-2017 hints that what appeared to be a promising thaw might have been nothing more than a brief fluctuation in a long-frozen conflict.

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