North Korea’s firing of an advanced missile into Japanese territorial waters Wednesday it a clear move designed to remind the world that the North already has enough nuclear bombs to kill millions of people and has the missiles to send those bombs to neighboring countries.
The frightening reminder comes just days before the North is scheduled to resume denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. in Sweden this weekend.
President Trump has been pressing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up all his nation’s nuclear weapons and the capacity to build more such weapons in return for the lifting of international economic sanctions.
But Kim has shown no willingness to accept complete denuclearization, viewing his small nuclear arsenal as an insurance policy protecting him against an attack from the U.S. and any other nation.
North Korea’s latest missile test is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Initial reports said the missile was fired from a submarine, but U.S. officials later told Fox News the ballistic missile was fired from a barge or underwater platform.
The missile North Korea tested could carry a nuclear warhead to targets in Japan, South Korea and even potentially U.S. bases in Asia.
While such technology is far from new – the U.S. has been building such missiles since the 1950s – North Korea is building up its ability to launch a surprise nuclear attack or launch a devastating counterattack if America or South Korea were to invade or strike.
Maximum pressure – the description of the U.S. policy of working with the U.N. and other nations to keep crippling economic sanctions on the North in place until it agrees to full denuclearization – can go both ways.
The North can put maximum pressure on the U.S. and our allies by conducting more missile tests and perhaps even resuming testing of nuclear bombs.
Such a dangerous escalation of tensions could take the world back to the brink of an atomic showdown between the U.S. and North Korea, as happened in 2017.
But posturing is what North Korea does best, as it has little else it can do. While headlines around the world are repeating the dangers presented by this latest missile test, it’s important to understand why the North is testing missiles now and where we go from here.
For Kim, testing weapons that could be used in a nightmarish nuclear attack allows him to show strength during what can only be described as tough times for his regime.
While economic sanctions have not brought about denuclearization of the North, they are clearly having a harmful impact on the communist nation. The sanctions make it impossible for Kim to deliver on his promise to rebuild his nation’s economy and turn North Korea into a modern country with better living conditions for its people.
Kim overreached during his last summit with Trump, demanding massive sanctions relief for the dismantling of only one nuclear weapons facility. Now the North Korean leader must – at least for domestic purposes – approach the upcoming talks from a position of perceived strength.
Knowing this, Trump administration officials will not get rattled or overreact to the newest missile test by the North and will instead focus on the tough task ahead of securing at least an interim deal with the Kim regime to at minimum prevent the growth of its nuclear and missile arsenal.
The good news is that the stars maybe finally aligning for such a bargain to be struck. With the Trump administration is surely looking to change the news cycle from constant breaking news on impeachment, a deal with North Korea – even a small one that starts the process of denuclearization – would surely make history.
There is even the possibility such an agreement could be signed in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, since Kim has invited Trump in a recent letter to visit North Korea.
The good news is that we already have a template to lock in a deal that both sides can live with and build on.
f North Korea is still willing to close the Yongbyon nuclear facility under international supervision with inspectors on the ground and Washington agrees to some sort of sanctions relief – even a temporary lifting of sanctions for three years or so to see if North Korea complies – we would have a framework to build critical trust and craft much larger deals in the future.
Both sides must compromise. Trump will not get full North Korean denuclearization before sanctions relief. Kim will not get the most-devastating sanctions waived for closing just one nuclear facility.
Unfortunately, history tells us common sense does not always rule the day when it comes to tough diplomatic negotiations between sworn enemies. Kim could very well overplay his hand – thinking Trump is weakened by possible impeachment – and try to get more sanctions relief than Washington is willing to provide.
Trump could also miscalculate – not offering any sanctions relief or only minimal relief – and infuriate the North Koreans.
Let’s hope that both sides can find common ground this weekend and that a third summit between Kim and Trump truly ushers in a new relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. If not, we could very well be headed back to the dark days of nuclear threats or worse.
And considering how close the U.S. and North Korea came to the brink of war just two years ago, both sides would be wise to seek a fair compromise under which neither gets all they want but peace is preserved.