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North Korea Tests ‘Tactical Weapon’, Desires Removal of U.S. Secretary From Nuclear Talks

While it is not totally clear what weapon was tested, analysts say it is highly not likely that that it is a long-range missile, as that would spell an end to negotiations entirely.

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North Korea's Scud-B missile
A mock North Korea's Scud-B missile, left, and South Korean missiles are displayed at Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 18, 2019. North Korea said Thursday that it had test-fired a new type of "tactical guided weapon," its first such test in nearly half a year, and a possible sign of its displeasure with deadlocked nuclear talks with the United States. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

North Korea said Thursday it test-fired a “tactical guided weapon,” while in a separate move, the reclusive state demanded the removal of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from negotiations over its nuclear program.

Experts believe both moves are a return to Pyongyang’s strategy of brinkmanship: extreme, yet calculated actions that show the country’s resentment with the stalled negotiations with Washington.

The weapons test on Wednesday, followed by the bold demand on Pompeo, simultaneously show outsiders that North Korea won’t back down, and to show strength domestically amid internal worries that diplomacy with the U.S. indicate the regime’s weakness, analysts said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong was present at the weapons test, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“The development of the weapon system serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People’s Army,” he reportedly said.

During the South Korean Ministry of National Defense’s regular press briefing Thursday, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff did not give details of North Korea’s new tactical guided weapon.

The weapon, mentioned by North Korean media today is currently under review. It is not appropriate to give details of military information,” said Kim Jun-rak, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s public information office.

While Pompeo’s remarks suggested that a third U.S.-North Korea summit could happen soon, others in the administration were doubtful.
While Pompeo’s remarks suggested that a third U.S.-North Korea summit could happen soon, others in the administration were doubtful. VOA

In Washington, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon that North Korea conducted a test, but said it didn’t involve a ballistic weapon and didn’t trigger any change in U.S. military operations, the Associated Press reported.

While it is not totally clear what weapon was tested, analysts say it is highly not likely that that it is a long-range missile, as that would spell an end to negotiations entirely.

The BBC pointed out that testing a different kind of weapon allows Kim to say that he isn’t breaking any agreements not to test ICBMs, but still show North Korea has the capacity and will to develop new weapons. In essence it is a creative way to irritate North Korea’s detractors as if it tested the prohibited weapons without actually doing so.

According to one U.S. congressman it appears that Kim’s strategy is having the desired effect.

“Make no mistake about it: North Korea remains a clear and present danger to the safety and security of the American people,” said Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in a statement Wednesday night.

“These alleged actions underscore that sanctions must remain in place and new sanctions must be levied until there is complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the North Korean regime,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said through his twitter account Thursday that the weapons test should not be taken as an indication of North Korea’s unwillingness to negotiate.

“Pundits and policy makers should refrain from automatically presuming this is an indicator of Pyongyang deliberately ratcheting up tensions or closing the door on negotiations,” said Klingner.

He said, however, that the regime was unhappy that negotiations were not proceeding smoothly in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s second summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam in February.

The meeting ended in disagreement over competing U.S. demands for movement on denuclearization by Pyongyang and North Korean expectations for relief from punishing economic sanctions.

“That said, there are already plenty of negative signs that negotiations aren’t going well. Kim’s speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly is a clearer signal of North Korean intentions than yesterday’s military activity,” Klingner said.

Of the weapons test, Kim, Dong-yeop, a research professor at the Kyungnam University Institute for Far East Studies in South Korea posted on his social network site, “It seems like North Korea is strengthening selective conventional weapons and have intentions to hold conventional deterrence to protect the state.”

North Korea made the demand for Pompeo’s replacement following a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in which he confirmed that in the past he has called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “tyrant.”

Pompeo also said Monday during a speech that Kim made a promise to denuclearize during the first U.S.-North Korea summit last year in Singapore.

Deal
The president is fully prepared to have a third summit if he can get a real deal. VOA

“He said he wanted it done by the end of the year,” Pompeo said during the speech. “I’d love to see that done sooner.”

North Korea’s Director General of the American Affairs Department at the Foreign Ministry Kwon Jong Gun said in a statement that Pompeo misrepresented what Kim had said, that negotiations should be finalized by the year’s end.

Kwon said that Pompeo “spouted reckless remarks, hurting the dignity of our supreme leadership… to unveil his mean character”.

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While Pompeo’s remarks suggested that a third U.S.-North Korea summit could happen soon, others in the administration were doubtful.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said Wednesday in an interview with Bloomberg News that Washington needs more concrete indications that Kim is ready to give up his nuclear arsenal before a third summit could occur.

“The president is fully prepared to have a third summit if he can get a real deal,” he said. (RFA)

Next Story

North Korea’s Economy Flagging under Crippling International Sanctions, Threaten Old and New Elites

The overall lack of cash and the government’s confiscation of what it finds among the elite are creating discontent but not so much as to trigger organized unrest

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north korea's economy, international sanctions
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un visits Taesong Department Store just before its opening, in this photo released April 8, 2019, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. VOA

By all accounts, North Korea’s cash-strapped economy is flagging under crippling international sanctions and the slowdown means the traditional elite and a rising merchant class may be feeling pinched, experts say.

“The elites in Pyongyang are really feeling it,” said Joshua Stanton, a Washington attorney who helped draft the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act in 2016.

“They’re having a very tough time right now. I think they’re losing their wealth rapidly. And they’re concerned about the government’s policies and directions, and the failure to get sanctions lifted in Hanoi,” he continued.

north korea's economy, international sanctions
People walk beneath portraits of late leaders, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 18, 2017. VOA

North Korean aristocrats

The most privileged government and military officials, considered North Korea’s aristocrats, are estimated to number about 2,000 people. Born into families who backed the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung in the 1940s and 1950s, they are fiercely loyal to the Kim dynasty, said William Brown, former CIA analyst and a North Korea economy expert.

Despite their fealty to current leader Kim Jong Un, this top echelon of what is supposed to be a classless society is losing money. The state-run enterprises they control in the centrally planned socialist economy — heavy industries such as mining and light industries such as textile and clothing factories — have been hit hard by the sanctions that President Donald Trump refused to lift at the Hanoi summit earlier this year, demanding that North Korea agree to full denuclearization as a precondition for relief.

These families share their profits from state enterprises with a newer privileged class, the merchants called donju, who help the aristocrats by facilitating the export of goods produced from state-run mines, farms and factories or by selling them domestically now that sanctions make overseas trade difficult, Brown, the economy expert, said.

Similar to oligarchs or private entrepreneurs and capitalists by the Western standards, the donju emerged from the market economy, which grew out of the country’s worst famine in the 1990s as workers, paid by the state in food rations, started trading whatever they could find for food on black markets. The markets established in a time of shortages were legitimized, then encouraged under Kim. Today, the donju partner with the elite families, providing funds for construction projects such as building apartments in Pyongyang while the families provide labor, usually workers they re-assign from state-owned enterprises.

north korea's economy, international sanctions
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un visits Taesong Department Store just before its opening, in this photo released April 8, 2019 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. VOA

“The donju touch on about just everything, everything from construction to manufacturing to things happening in the markets to transportation issues,” said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses.

“Right now, they’re under increasing pressure in terms of … getting the hard currency that they need in order to continue to do various projects that they do inside North Korea, which allows them to maintain their influence that they have within the regime and on the society,” he added.

Limiting luxuries, confiscating wealth

Unlike ordinary North Koreans, members of these privileged classes enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. Some drive imported cars. Some occasionally travel abroad. Others send their children to the country’s prestigious Kim Il Sung University, Kim Jong Un’s alma mater.

But as the government runs ever shorter on hard currency, it’s confiscating their wealth.

“[The] North Korean government has always historically used a lot of its money to keep those people happy,” said Stanton, listing gifts of luxury goods, apartments and “access to … material wealth.”

But that’s changing, Stanton said, “because the government is running out of money, it’s doing a lot of anti-corruption investigations and inspections. It’s trying to find their money, their savings, any cash that they have stored away, any bank accounts that they have in China, any wealth that they’ve accumulated.”

The overall lack of cash and the government’s confiscation of what it finds among the elite are creating discontent but not so much as to trigger organized unrest.

“They could put pressure on Kim definitely,” Brown said. “But [as] more of a loyal opposition rather than a radical opposition. I think … the most likely unrest would come from workers, state enterprise laborers, miners, people who are working for the state and who are barely being paid at all, and have to go into the marketplace to make a living.”

international sanctions, north korea's economy
FILE – In this Sept. 9, 2016, photo, a man watches a TV news program reporting North Korea’s nuclear test at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests at its Punggye-ri site, the first in 2006. VOA

A ‘mounting toll’

In October 2006, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) imposed sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s first nuclear weapons test. They were designed to pressure North Korea into ending its nuclear ambitions by banning sales to Pyongyang of heavy weaponry, missile technology and material, and select luxury goods, according to a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder. In March 2016, the UNSC sanctioned sales of aviation fuel to North Korea after its fourth nuclear test.

Since November 2016, after Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test, the UNSC has aimed sanctions at North Korea’s economy by banning its export of key commodities such as copper, coal, seafood, textiles and labor.

The sanctions were aimed at cutting off foreign currency flowing into the country — most of the wages paid to North Korean workers contracted to work overseas ended up in Pyongyang — and the UNSC capped North Korea’s imports of the crude oil and refined petroleum that the country needs to sustain its economy and run the military.

Since Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. has issued its own set of sanctions through the so-called “maximum pressure campaign,” which blocks from the U.S. financial system any foreign business or individual involved in trade with North Korea, and exposes any assets of the foreign businesses or individual to seizure by the U.S. government. Last week, U.S. officials seized a North Korean ship allegedly used in the illegal coal trade.

international sanctions, north korea's economy
Undated photo released by the U.S. Justice Dept. on May 9, 2019 shows the North Korean cargo ship ‘Wise Honest’. VOA

“I’m convinced that the international and other sanctions on North Korea are taking a mounting toll on [North Korean] economy,” said Evans Revere, former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

“The pressure from sanctions and related measures may not now be enough to destabilize the regime,” he added, “but if these measures remain in place, and especially if more sanctions and other measures are applied, they have the potential to do so.”

Economic growth impaired

According to a report on 38North, a website devoted to analyzing North Korea, the growth rate of the country’s economy in 2018 was 4.6%, the lowest since 2006, based on the assessment it made from the data on North Korea’s 2019 budget reported at its parliamentary session in April.

“This corresponds with Western reports on sanctions, especially those issued since 2017, having an impact on North Korea’s economy,” the report said.

Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korean Economic Institute, said, “Kim Jong Un does face a dilemma” of how long he can “continue on the current path without sanctions relief.”

Many coal mines in North Korea are reportedly closed because of a drop in coal exports, and transportation and military sectors are also struggling because they are running short on raw materials.

Scores of government-backed factories closed after the Hanoi summit, and workers were told to find work elsewhere because the factories are unable to keep the lights on, pay their workers or provide food rations.

“What we have now is a situation where North Korea’s heavy industry appears to be collapsing,” Stanton said. “The effect of this is going to become more noticeable in the coming weeks and months.”

Rations reduced

North Korea is currently facing a food crisis with more than 10 million people estimated to be without enough food to last until next year, according to a U.N. report on the country’s food security issued earlier this month.

As the state-enterprises are failing, displaced factory workers are turning to the private markets to make money, much as they did in the 1990s.

“It allows people to get off the official economy, the economy that is controlled by the state, which has basically dried up early since the ’90s, into the 2000s, and the 2010,” Gause said. “That part of the top-down economy has been weaker and weaker, and the markets have basically filled in the gaps.”

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Stangarone said, “As long as North Korea’s able to control the flow of information and maintain control of the population, I think this shift towards marketization is probably permanent.”

Gause said, “If [Kim] is not able to show progress on [economy] … either one, he’s got to re-engage in diplomacy with the United States and see if he can get sanctions relief there or he has to potentially go toward more brinkmanship in order to try to reset the chess board.” (VOA)