North Korea is likely to ramp up missile tests until the United States softens its tough line on denuclearisation, testing the Trump administration's resolve after it insisted Pyongyang's latest launches have not scuppered prospects for a deal, analysts said.
Pyongyang fired multiple projectiles - including what analysts believe were multiple rockets and at least one short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) test - from its east coast into the Sea of Japan on Saturday.
Vipin Narang, a nuclear proliferation expert at MIT, said Pyongyang's probable SRBM test at the weekend could mark the start of more provocative launches of long-range missiles if Washington did not back down from its insistence on complete disarmament before sanctions relief.
In 2006, North Korea "salami-sliced its way to the Taepodong [intercontinental ballistic missile] test by starting with SRBMs", said Narang, referring to the act of clandestinely achieving an unlawful goal in incremental steps. "This could be the beginning of that playbook."
Harry Kazianis, director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was likely to escalate the situation if the Trump administration did not compromise on its stance.
"The challenge now, at least for the moment, is Trump can ignore short-range or rocket-type weapons tests as those do not threaten the US homeland or break North Korea's self-imposed long-range missile testing moratorium," said Kazianis.
"But if Kim, in an act of deviance, decides that there is no path forward in negotiations - with China and Russia believing that America is unwilling to bend in its negotiating position - he may test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) after all," he said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump were expected to talk by telephone on Monday to discuss the projectiles fired by Pyongyang at the weekend, national broadcaster NHK reported.
US Secretary State of Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that Washington could still reach a disarmament deal with North Korea, despite short-range projectile launches by Pyongyang over the weekend that brought the yawning gap between the sides into sharp relief.
Just spoke to Prime Minister Abe of Japan concerning North Korea and Trade. Very good conversation!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 6, 2019
Speaking on ABC's This Week, Pompeo said the launches had not threatened the US or its allies Japan and South Korea, and there was still an "opportunity to get a negotiated outcome, where we get fully verified denuclearisation".
The remarks came a day after Trump cast the tests - including what is likely the North's first missile launch since November 2017 - in a similarly optimistic light, writing on Twitter that a deal "will happen" and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not want to "break his promise" on denuclearisation.
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
Although the launches at the weekend did not violate a pledge by the North to cease long-range ICBM tests, they have been widely interpreted as a signal of Pyongyang's impatience with Washington after months of stalled negotiations.
Taking a page from the playbook of his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea's leader has often resorted to provocative actions such as weapons tests to grab Washington's attention and improve its hand in negotiations.
Despite the Trump administration's efforts to put a positive spin on its efforts to engage Pyongyang, the sides remain far apart on the key issue of denuclearisation. While Washington has held out for complete, verifiable disarmament before any relief from sanctions, Pyongyang has called for a gradual, step-by-step approach.
Negotiations between the sides have been moribund since Trump walked out of his second summit with Kim in Hanoi after the North Korean leader reportedly balked at his offer of a "big deal" on nuclear disarmament.
During the February meeting, according to a report by Reuters, Trump proposed a deal under which nuclear weapons and bomb material would be transferred to the US in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, reflecting a long-held preference of National Security Adviser John Bolton.
"The projectile launches this time were intended to express displeasure over President Trump maintaining his tough stance of 'maximum pressure' until complete denuclearisation, and to parade the fact the hardline position of US officials like John Bolton will have no effect," said Nam Chang-hee, a political-science professor at Inha University in South Korea.
US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun is due to visit Seoul on Thursday and Friday, where he is expected to discuss ways to rekindle talks with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose office expressed concern over Pyongyang's actions at the weekend, has consistently called on the two sides to return to the negotiating table and reach a compromise.
Soo Kim, a former North Korea analyst with the CIA, said Washington would be cautious about making dramatic moves in response to Pyongyang's needling.
"Tempting as it may be to respond immediately, showing any sign of perturbance - be it a heavy-handed threat to counter Saturday's tests, or a surrendering stance in an effort to alleviate Pyongyang - could lead Washington into Pyongyang's hands," said Kim.
- South China Morning Post