Reports from Seoul indicate that last night, the DPRK tested a short range rocket off of the east coast of Korea. Although this test is a far cry from the nuclear capable ICBM tests of 2017, Pyongyang has nevertheless delivered a cogent message to the wider world.
This comes just under a month after the DPRK tested a new tactical guided weapon. While it is largely agreed that last night’s test like April’s test does not violate the agreement by Pyongyang to refrain from testing ICMBs and nuclear warheads during the course of the peace process, it would be impossible to argue that the test is unrelated to the public disappointment that Kim Jong-un recently voiced at the lack of progress on sanctions relief in the aftermath of the largely uneventful Hanoi summit between himself and Donald Trump.
Thus, the DPRK has been able to show that it continues to develop its domestic defence industry while remaining committed to the letter of the no-ICMB/no-nuclear testing agreements which have thus far provided a foundation for the ongoing peace process. At the sane time, the test is an indication that Kim Jong-un was not bluffing when he gave until the end of 2019 as a deadline for progress in the ongoing peace process before his country would examine alternative paths forward.
It is likewise noteworthy that last night’s test comes shortly after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe stated that for the first time, he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un without any preconditions. Such a meeting would surely be controversial as the DPRK and Japan do not have formal diplomatic relations whilst at a cultural and historic level, relations remain highly strained.
That being said, since the 1990s, Japan and the DPRK have quietly entered a process of normalised relations. That being said, this process has had many ups and downs. Still, many Japanese products can be found in the DPRK and a Kim-Abe summit would in many ways be more significant than any of Kim’s previous meetings, including those with Donald Trump, due to the unique levels of historic hostility involved in Japan-Korean relations that transcend even erstwhile DPRK-USA tensions.
In this sense, the missile test may have been a political test to see how serious Tokyo is being about a no strings attached meeting. Similarly, the test is a further signal to the US that Pyongyang is not bluffing about its end of 2019 deadline in respect of US peace talks.
At the same time however, Kim and Trump have kept their personal channels of communication open in spite of the fact that the DPRK has made it known that from its perspective US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now the major factor retarding the progress of peace talks.
When taken as a whole, it appears that Kim is fully aware of the internal squabbling in Washington and how this leads to an often incoherent US foreign policy when it comes to major issues. Kim will also have been aware that hours before the missile test, Donald Trump spoke over the telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin with whom Kim recently met for the first time in Vladivostok. Hence, the missile test could well be a clear indication to both the US and Russia that what is said behind closed doors will be backed up by action steps in the open.
For Kim, both rhetoric and a return to low grade missile tests have been the hallmark of 2019. If 2018 was filled with the initial optimism of an historic peace process, this year has been about forcing all sides to prove that they are serious in terms of their commitments and that in respect of the United States in particular, that compromises will be necessary in order to pull off what Trump might well call “the peace of the century”.
The DPRK has proved that it can get the world’s attention when it needs to remind the interested parties of the fact that the historic opportunity for peace cannot be lost due to endless delays and a stubborn lack of realism when it comes to a negotiating process built on both trust and compromise. At the same time, by keeping its word on the cessation of nuclear and ICBM tests, the DPRK is also proving that it is able to remain consistent about the bigger picture while using minor provocations to demonstrate that flexibility is a two way street.
Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be a master of both the diplomatic carrot and the weaponised stick. It is now up to all other interested parties to receive the message and take peaceful action steps to avoid any totally unnecessary escalation of tensions.
Update: Approximately 12 hours after the launch, Donald Trump Tweeted a positive message about Kim Jong-un, thus demonstrating that Kim has indeed maintained a crucial balance between defending his national interests and promoting good relations with the US and others.
Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 4, 2019