- Kim Jong Un recently announced North Korea would stop nuclear tests and some missile tests, a move that should help move along peace talks, but the reason is troubling.
- Kim says North Korea has finished its nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile program – and therefore can stop its tests.
- The gaps between how Kim and President Donald Trump understand the proposed peace process could lead to violent results, an expert said.
North Korea’s recent promise to halt its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests might first seem like an overture for peace, but a careful reading suggests it could indicate Kim Jong Un is ready for nuclear war – and he just may get it.
The testing of nuclear weapons and of missiles with ever-increasing ranges has long served as a major irritant in the US’s relationship with North Korea. Pyongyang has threatened to fire missiles toward US military bases in Guam, and some US officials have discussed intercepting a North Korean launch or countering one with a “bloody nose” strike designed to embarrass the country without starting a war.
Because of the high risks of escalation around every North Korean missile launch, the announcement of a freeze in testing – as well as the announced shutdown of its main nuclear test site – seems at first glance like a big step toward peace.
“This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!” President Donald Trump tweeted of the announcement.
But Kim’s stated reason for pausing tests gives a different impression.
“No nuclear test and intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished,” North Korean media quoted Kim as saying, using an abbreviation for the country’s official name.
Basically, Kim says North Korea has stopped testing because it’s done testing.
“KJU is satisfied,” Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, tweeted of Kim’s announcement.
While North Korea has never fired an ICBM at range, and fired its Hwasong-15 ICBM only twice, Hanham and other experts think it has already achieved sufficient capability to threaten the US.
On the issue of nuclear testing, Robert Manning, a North Korea expert at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider there was a “fair amount of evidence” suggesting another nuclear test in North Korea’s main test site could destroy the site and possibly collapse a mountain.
So North Korea may not see a need to test another missile, and it may not be able to test another nuclear bomb. According in Manning’s view, Kim is “making a virtue of necessity and hoping we’re stupid enough to think it’s a concession.”
Talks could not only fail but backslide
But while dressing up the end of an illegal nuclear program may buy Kim some good press in the near term, it could set up disaster in coming talks with Trump.
Manning said Trump’s belief in himself as a dealmaker, and his history of being a counterpuncher, could lead to things getting “nasty really fast” if Trump feels North Korea has tricked him.
Any perceived slights from Kim could prompt a return by Trump to “studying what kind strikes he could make without starting a nuclear war,” Manning said.
“I think the fear among a lot of Korea watchers is when you have a summit between two leaders, if things do not go well, there’s little to fall back on,” Jung Pak, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation chair in Korea studies at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, told MSNBC on Saturday.
So while Trump and much of the world cheer North Korea’s decision to stop testing while talks are going on, something that almost certainly does help the peace process, it’s important to remember what Kim’s nuclear weapons mean to him.
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