[News analysis] N. Korea conducts “another crucial test” at Sohae Satellite Launching Ground

Posted on : 2019-12-16 18:00 KST Modified on : 2019-12-16 18:17 KST
Pyongyang may to have conducted engine combustion tests for ICBMs
A post by 38 North, a website devoted to analyzing events concerning North Korea, concerning “another crucial test” at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang Village,n Cholsan County, on Dec. 13.
A post by 38 North, a website devoted to analyzing events concerning North Korea, concerning “another crucial test” at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang Village,n Cholsan County, on Dec. 13.

North Korea’s Academy of National Defense Science stated on the afternoon of Dec. 14 that “another crucial test was successfully conducted at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground [. . .] on December 13.” The results of the test, the statement said, “will be applied to further bolstering [. . . North Korea’s] reliable strategic nuclear deterrent.”

About seven hours later, at 10:40 pm on Dec. 14, Pak Jong-chon, chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army said that the test results “will be fully applied to the development of another strategic weapon of the DPRK for [. . .] restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the US.”

The Academy of National Defense Science’s announcement of these two major tests, carried out on Dec. 7 and 13, suggests that North Korea means to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The South Korean and US governments believe that North Korea has been carrying out engine combustion tests.

North Korea’s two statements on Dec. 14 followed one by the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry that called the US-sponsored meeting of the UN Security Council on Dec. 11 a political “provocation” that North Korea would “never overlook.” They also came one day before Stephen Biegun, US State Department special representative for North Korea and the nominee for deputy secretary of state, began a visit to South Korea on Dec. 15.

North demands suspension of S. Korea-US military exercises and step-by-step actions

North Korea is pressuring the US to choose between a showdown and negotiations. The North’s key demands are for the US to reconfirm its plans to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, as US President Donald Trump promised during the Singapore summit on June 12, 2018, and to join negotiations that presume step-by-step and simultaneous actions, a departure from the US’ current insistence that North Korea must denuclearize before sanctions are lifted.

The questions of what North Korean policy Trump may reveal during Biegun’s visit to the South and whether he will engage in summit diplomacy by sending a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are expected to shed light on Korean Peninsula affairs around the end of this year and the beginning of the next.

North Korea has been toughening its rhetoric by mentioning the “nuclear deterrent,” a phrase it has been avoiding. That can be seen in the series of phrases related to the two “crucial tests” at the North’s satellite launching ground at Tongchang Village, Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province: “a change in our strategic position” (a statement by the spokesperson for the Academy of National Defense Science on Dec. 8), “bolstering [. . .] the [. . .] strategic nuclear deterrent” (a statement by the same spokesperson on Dec. 14), and “the development of another strategic weapon” (a statement by Pak Jong-chon on Dec. 14).

“Genuine peace can be safeguarded and our development and future be guaranteed only when the balance of power is completely ensured,” Pak said in his statement, suggesting that North Korea could alter its basic approach from “peace through negotiations” to “peace through strength.”

North still leaves door open for dialogue

The hardline bent of North Korea’s rhetoric is not absolute, however. Though Pak said that “our army is fully ready to thoroughly carry out any decision of the Supreme Leader with action,” he also said that North Korea should “be familiar” with dialogue. North Korea only published the two Dec. 14 statements through the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which is designed for a foreign audience, and didn’t run them in the Rodong Sinmun, regarded as essential reading for the North Korean public. The front page of the Dec. 15 edition of the Rodong Sinmun was devoted to a story about party information workers, student, and youth from around the country visiting revolutionary battle sites at Mt. Paektu. In effect, North Korea was urging domestic readers to psyche themselves up to endure any difficulties while signaling to a foreign audience that the door to dialogue hasn’t closed completely.

The problem is the American attitude. During the North Korea-US working-level talks in Stockholm in early October, Biegun spent six hours outlining a plan to implement the four agreements included in the joint statement produced in the Singapore summit on June 12, 2019. But Biegun reportedly didn’t make any mention of easing or lifting sanctions or halting the South Korea-US joint military exercises, which are the North’s key items of interest.

During a seminar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Nov. 5, Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea and deputy special representative for North Korea, emphasized the need to “build a peace regime” in order to bring to a close 70 years of war on the Korean Peninsula, but he didn’t bring up the issue of sanctions. During a closed-door meeting on the same day, Wong said that the US continues to maintain that denuclearization must take place before sanctions are eased or lifted, one of the attendees said. That explains why North Korea has issued 20 statements criticizing the US since the Stockholm negotiations.

US’ failure to address North’s demand for “new calculation”

“The problem is that the US is failing to address Kim Jong-un’s consistent demand for a ‘new calculation.’ The minimum requirement for resuming negotiations between the two sides is to reconfirm the plan to halt military exercises, as promised by Trump, and to commit to gradually resolving the sanctions issue as well,” said a former senior official in the South Korean government.

There are two main aspects of what North Korea describes as the US’ hostile policy toward it: the South Korea-US military exercises, which “threaten the safety of the state,” and the sanctions against the North, which are an “obstacle impeding the people’s right to survive and develop.”

“If it’s not feasible to make a unilateral declaration on the sanctions issue because of links to the UN and the international community, [South Korean] President Moon Jae-in needs to speak up about halting the military exercises, which can pave the way to resuming negotiations,” the former official added.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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