Diplomacy and North Korea's nuclear program

North Korea has launched two short-range missiles while the US Presidents top envoy, Stephen Biegun was in Seoul to discuss jump-starting of talks after the two countries failed to reach an accord at the summit in Vietnam. The US has seized Wise Honest, a North Korean vessel, transporting coal, a vital component of the country’s economy reeling under sanctions. What does this imply? 

Background

Political and diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States have been historically hostile. In recent years, relations have been primarily defined by North Korea's belligerent nuclear program – testing of nuclear weapons, development of long-range missiles capable of striking targets thousands of miles away, and ongoing threats to strike the United States and South Korea.  

The US and the UN have placed severe economic penalties on North Korea. Around 90% of its exports are banned, and there are caps on the amount of oil it can buy. If Kim Jong-un is going to build up North Korea's economy, as he has promised his people, then he will need sanctions lifted. The US has underlined that there will be no sanctions relief until "complete denuclearisation."  

Since January 2018, North Korea has appeared to have softened its stance, initiating diplomatic meetings. US President Donald Trump's propensity to seek deals has allowed America to approach the negotiating table. However, several rounds of negotiations have resulted in little progress. The February summit in Hanoi broke down over conflicting demands by North Korea to lift sanctions and America's position of complete denuclearisation in return for sanction relief.

In April 2018, Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea announced a partial moratorium on the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). 

Analysis

In April 2019, Kim Jong Un addressed the Supreme People's Assembly, the country's rubber-stamp legislature, speaking extensively about the state of the US-North Korea relationship. He condemned the continuation of American-South Korean military exercises and criticised a US missile launch in March 2019. The US missile launch simulated the interception of an ICBM, similar to those previously tested by North Korea. Warning that North Korea will move forward with similar actions of its own, Mr Un said, "the wind will bring waves." 

In early May 2019, North Korea confirmed that it had conducted its first ballistic missile launch in 522 days. Initial South Korean reports of the launch suggested a short-range missile; the assessment was then changed to short-range projectiles. Eventually, it was ascertained that the North Koreans had conducted a major rocket artillery drill and tested a guided rocket system. This system introduced a new missile, propelled by solid fuel, that looks identical to Russia's Iskander missiles. Analysts believe the system to be a modernised iteration of North Korea's short-range KN02/Toksa ballistic missile.

North Korea confirmed its actions in state media, taking care to use language that was not hostile to South Korea. The two Korea's signed a military agreement in September 2018 designed to prevent military confrontation on the Peninsula. The agreement forbids hostile acts by either side. The Blue House, South Korea's executive office, points to the test as a violation of the contract. Conversely, North Korea points to the South's continued military alliance with the US as hostile engagement. 

Kim Jong Un has expressed his unhappiness over the outcome of the Hanoi summit. North Korea suffers from food scarcity and approached South Korea for aid; the US has given tacit approval for this request. North Korea seeks further concessions, and Mr Un has followed through on his promise to respond to what it views as aggressive American action. Mr Un looks to recalibrate North Korea's relationship with the US, showing them it is serious about its refusal to completely denuclearise.

In March 2019, North Korea's vice-foreign minister, at a press conference with embassies, talked about Mr Un taking a risk by going to Hanoi. She said that Mr Un had ignored various petitions by North Korea's munitions industry. It is likely that the failure of Hanoi has caused Mr Un embarrassment among domestic circles. Mr Un has since embraced more aggressive rhetoric. The tests are a useful tool in showing his officers that he remains a strongman. 

In 2006, the 1999 moratorium on missile testing was terminated by the launch of an earlier iteration of the Toksa. This older version of the Toksa also had similarities to the predecessor of the Russian Iskander, the Oka. The latest round of tests bears striking similarities to the events of 2006, although analysts believe that the North Koreans have gone out of their way to show resemblance to the Iskander. They have pointed to the choice of colour and the alteration of the missiles' launcher to look similar to that of Iskander's. Although there is no suggestion of military aid, the timing of the launch weeks after Mr Un's meeting with Vladimir Putin suggests more significant ties between North Korea and Russia. This is in-line with Mr Un's push for international diplomacy and can be seen as a way to bring Russia into the calculus. 

Meanwhile, America announced that it had seized a North Korean cargo ship that it believes to be involved in the illicit shipping of coal. By this, Washington has displayed that it is unwilling to budge on its demand for complete denuclearisation.

Counterpoint

President Trump has argued that the cessation of missile launches under his presidency is a result of his relationship with Mr Un and his deal-making ability. As the campaign for the 2020 Presidential elections builds, Mr Trump has placed much of his credibility on stopping North Korea's belligerent activities. Similarly, Moon Jai-in, South Korea's president, has counted on North Korea's cessation of missile launches to promote peace on the Peninsula. North Korea's recent launch undermines this signature policy of the Moon government. Therefore it is in the interests of both Mr Trump and Mr Moon to pursue diplomacy to end North Korea's nuclear program.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the  North Koreans are impatient for concessions from the US  and wants concrete commitment to sanction relief. The ultimate goal for Kim is a defacto acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status. We understand that North Korea is unlikely to give up its position of step-by-step measures to rein in its nuclear program. We feel that  Kim believes its survival is guaranteed only by its nuclear program. On the contrary, the US demands complete denuclearisation believing that any sanction relief may allow North Korea to continue their nuclear program. We also realise that the missile test did not violate Kim’s self-imposed nuclear and missile testing moratorium, which only applies to intercontinental range ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States.