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As experts analyze North Korean missile engine test, some say Kim is done talking

An intercontinental ballistic missile is launched in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service)
December 11, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A weekend missile engine test in North Korea might be a signal that Kim Jong Un is prepared to withdraw from denuclearization negotiations with the United States, experts told RFA.

Some analysts pointed to the test as an indication that President Donald Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim is a policy failure, while others criticized the president for not bringing human rights issues into negotiations with the reclusive state.

North Korea performed what it called a “very important test” Saturday at a long-range rocket launch site that has seemingly been rebuilt after it was taken apart at the beginning of talks with the United States over its nuclear program last year.

A spokesperson from North Korea’s Academy of National Defence Science told the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) that the test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground would have “an important effect on changing the strategic position of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea once again in the near future.”

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Following the announcement it was not immediately clear what exactly had been tested, but experts thought it might be a solid-fuel engine for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

Voice of America (VOA) confirmed Tuesday that a missile engine was tested, but reported that remained unclear what type of engine it was, citing several experts, one of whom noted that this test was different in that Pyongyang did not share photographs of the event.

South Korea-based North Korea experts interviewed by RFA’s Korean Service Monday noted both the military and political significance of the test.

“On a military level, it may be a solid-fuel test for missile development, but we need to keep an eye on the results of the meeting of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers’ Party,” said Shin Beomchul, director of the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ Center for Security and Unification.

Shin added that North Korea likely did not test-fire an actual ICBM.

Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification said the purpose of the test was to put pressure on the U.S.

“I don’t think North Korea is even considering anything on the level of resuming ICBM tests because that would go beyond [that] purpose,” Hong said.

“In a way, the [North’s] intention is to go up to the limit, then leave the room discreetly, so for now I believe that the focus is on maintaining U.S.-North Korea talks,” he said.

But Handong Global University’s Park Won Gon said he believed the test signaled that North Korea is done talking.

“It is clear that North Korea has conducted tests related to ICBM. It’s a clear message to the U.S. that the next step is a ‘new path’ and an ICBM launch cannot be ruled out,” said Park, referring to language used by Kim Jong Un during his New Year’s address in January, in which he implied that North Korea would seek alternatives to denuclearization if the United States would remain inflexible in negotiations.

North Korea has set a deadline for the end of this year before it starts down its new path.

Outside of Korea, experts discussed the test in terms of North Korea’s strategy, and how it might signal a new approach from North Korea.

Former acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton told RFA that the test was a strategic move that the U.S. should not fall for.

“The most important thing for the U.S. to do is to maintain unity among international partners.  The North has said that it will give the U.S. a Christmas present, however, the North probably wants to continue splitting the U.S. from other relevant countries on this issue,” she said.

Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said the location of the test was particularly significant.

“The key point is that this happened at a site that North Korea previously had said was being dismantled,” the IISS’ director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program said.

“By conducting a test there North Korea is showing that steps [they] had taken previously [they] are now walking back from. So gains the Trump party had in his diplomacy with North Korea are evaporating,” said Fitzpatrick.

The Atlantic Council’s Robert Manning said the test points to a North Korea that he believes will become more assertive in the near future.

“I expect we will see ICBM launched in the near future, he said, adding, “[They] will declare a new policy and they will end denuclearization diplomacy and demand that the World accept them as nuclear state,”

“I think it underscores complete failure of Trump’s personalized diplomacy and creates whole new strategic calculus for North East Asia,” Manning said.

In what was seen as an effort to preserve diplomacy with North Korea, the Trump administration refused on Monday to support a proposed meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday aimed at putting a spotlight on North Korea on Human Rights Day.

Joseph Nye, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Clinton Administration told RFA Tuesday, “Trump is trying to preserve his bargaining opportunity with Kim before the end of the year, but he is doing so at a cost in terms of US soft power and reputation.”

Experts said Trump’s avoidance of human rights issues during negotiations would be unlikely to help nuclear diplomacy.

“The Trump administration – and it’s probably more accurate to say President Trump himself – seems to believe that not addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses will increase the chances of engaging productively with Pyongyang, as the North’s end-of-year deadline approaches,” said Robert Einhorn, who was a special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control at the state department.

“But it is unlikely that the gesture will satisfy the DPRK’s requirement for getting negotiations on track, and it will disturb critics who believe that North Korea’s human rights record must be addressed and that the gesture will show weakness and desperation for a deal,” said Einhorn.

Evans Revere said that looking the other way on human rights crimes was morally wrong.

“Preventing an examination of North Korea’s human rights record makes us complicit in the regime’s abuse of its people,” the former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs said.

David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that the president’s approach on human rights in North Korea thus far had been a mistake.

“It is mistake to believe that by not supporting UN human rights that will somehow engender good will with Kim,” he said.

“In fact, I think this is sign of weakness. We are compromising our principles,” Maxwell added.

The Hudson Institute’s Robert Cronin said that the Trump administration is hoping for further negotiations, but is realizing that North Korea is not as sincere as they had hoped.

“There is a growing realization that Kim Jong Un is interested in posturing, not meaningful diplomacy. In short, just because Washington is preserving a diplomatic opening does not indicate that such diplomacy is at all likely to happen,” said Cronin.