North Korea is at it again; this time, test-firing ballistic missiles in an apparent attempt to grab the world’s attention. The timing could not be worse because our collective focus should be on the pandemic. Admittedly though, the recent provocations seem to be a recurring pattern that is, mostly likely, borne out of desperation.
In an Agence France-Presse (AFP) story we published, emeritus professor of North Korean studies at Korea University Yoo Ho-yeol said last Thursday’s launch “signals the beginning of Pyongyang putting pressure on Washington for nuclear talks.” The professor added, “What it will do next depends on to what degree the US and China will respond to this.”
Those tests, along with similar launchings earlier, happened after the joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States. Also, Washington’s top diplomat, Secretary Antony Blinken, was visiting Asia during the time. The Biden administration has reportedly reached out to North Korea for talks but has not received a response.
Instead, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un, issued “a word of advice to the new administration of the United States that is struggling to spread the smell of gunpowder on our land from across the ocean.” She said in a statement, “If you wish to sleep well for the next four years, it would be better not to create work from the start that will make you lose sleep.”
Of course, what the Kims want most of all is relief from economic sanctions. It had seemed that Donald Trump, when he was US president, was prepared to grant that, but negotiations bogged down over denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Since then, North Korea has again become reclusive, acting out from time to time with short-range missile launchings and signaling that another nuclear test could be in the pipeline. Mr. Kim has even disappeared from public view a few times, leading some to speculate that he might be isolating or distancing himself from people possibly infected with Covid-19.
Of course, no one can be certain about what is happening in North Korea or what its rulers are thinking. But if the intent is to scare global leaders or to get sympathy somehow to win concessions, then it is going about things the wrong way. Making provocative actions is not what a mature, respected world leader would do. If Kim Jong-un wants the respect and admiration afforded to his grandfather, the founder of North Korea, he must adapt to the times and understand he must engage other countries in a rational, reasonable and consistent manner.
Even Mr. Kim’s allies will eventually tire of his erratic behavior, and Southeast Asian countries will never support North Korea if he persists in his childish ways. Decades of pursuing a cycle of provocation followed by insincere talks only secure enough aid and trade to keep his regime alive.
It is troubling to note that under Mr. Kim, North Korea has become a greater threat to global security and economic progress. It has not only conducted more missile launchings than during the previous Kim regimes, but North Korea has also tested its most powerful nuclear weapon and launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea developed the capability to strike at US territories, its mainland and of course, all of Southeast Asia. But even with all that, Mr. Kim has failed to get what he really wants.
The regime in Pyongyang should instead return to negotiate with the US to denuclearize the Korean peninsula because that would be the best for continued Kim family rule and the North Korean people. North Korea cannot afford the unnecessary expense of its nuclear and missile weapons programs when people there lack access to basic human needs such as food and health care.
Pyongyang’s illicit weapons program is wasteful because it does not actually increase national security. North Korea already enjoys the protection of China’s and Russia’s nuclear umbrella.
Regrettably for Southeast Asia and the rest of the world, ignoring North Korea may not be viable. If it is indeed feeling desperate, that makes Mr. Kim even more dangerous.