By Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra*
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, by recently replacing his foreign and defence ministers, has indicated his intent to take a tough stand on the issue of denuclearisation. On 18 and 22 January 2020, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was replaced by Ri Son Gwon, and Defence Minister No Kwang Chol was replaced by Kim Jong Gwan. Ri Son Gwon is former chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, and Kim Jong Gwan was Vice Defence Minister.
These, and a few other reshuffles were reportedly charted out in the fifth plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held on 28-31 December 2019. In the meeting, Kim Jong-un said that North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests was over, and in that in the “near future,” North Korea might introduce new “strategic” weapons into its arsenal. He went on to say that North Korea would resort to “shocking actual action” and the US would have to “pay for the pains sustained by our people.” He threatened that if US’ hostile policy towards North Korea did not change, “there will never be denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula.” What could have contributed to these recent provocations?
The February 2019 Hanoi summit ended abruptly reportedly because North Korea was asking for ‘substantial’ concessions with regard to economic sanctions but was not ready to give ‘enough’ in return. Even though there was another, albeit brief, meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump at the DMZ in June, and a meeting between US and North Korean officials in Stockholm in October, no real progress was made on denuclearisation. After the Hanoi debacle, North Korea repeatedly asserted that it would wait only till the end of 2019 for results. In fact, it threatened the US that it would resume nuclear and missile testing, which had been on standstill for nearly two years. It is thus no secret that North Korea was disappointed with the lack of an outcome, and around 27 short-range missile and rocket tests since May 2019 have been undertaken as a demonstration of this displeasure.
On the other hand, the US on several occasions has indicted that the deadline for denuclearisation talks identified by North Korea – 31 December 2019 – is “artificial.” The US remains unwilling to show any flexibility, and it has in fact been reported that it has been simultaneously preparing to deal with an alternate scenario. Trump and senior officials of his administration have otherwise maintained their publicly expressed hope of North Korea choosing peace over war.
Some have argued that the talks are a gambit by the Trump administration to distract from the gravity of the situation and buy time until the US presidential election in November 2020. This ties in with Trump celebrating diplomatic overtures towards North Korea as a huge milestone of his foreign policy, even though there is no discernible progress in denuclearisation.
North Korea, of course, would be aware of this election-focused strategy, and thus considers now an opportune time to put pressure on the US. Kim Jong-un is likely working on the assumption that the Trump administration will not opt for military action in an election year. For this same reason, North Korea is ready to escalate and sharpen its strategic offence capabilities, and Jong-un’s recent statements as well the choice of foreign minister reflect this plan. Ri Son Gwon, unlike his predecessors, comes from a military background and is a known hardliner, which would also send the appropriate message to the US.
It appears that the US-North Korea denuclearisation tango has moved to a new phase – one that would involve aggressive posturing and threatening statements and activities from both countries. On the other hand, should better sense prevail, and North Korea refrains from further testing, that it is election season might signal better prospects for movement towards a deal. Whatever the outcome, these developments foretell significant activity on the Korean denuclearisation front in 2020.
*Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.