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NK expected to combine nukes with gesture to mend ties

Inter-Korea relations are seen headed for rough waters in 2017, with the communist North Korea expected to push ahead with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, while making gestures to ease tension on the peninsula.

Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)
Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)
In his New Year’s speech Sunday, Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un claimed that the country’s test firing of intercontinental ballistic missile is in the final phase of development, vowing to complete it this year. The ICBM, coupled with ongoing nuclear programs, is considered to be crucial to the hermit kingdom acquiring what it claims to be nuclear deterrent against the US and its allies. 

“While North Korea has been developing its KN-08 ICBM -- with a maximum range of 13,000 kilometers -- it has never been test fired... Its successful test launch will realize the threat against the US mainland, which means Washington will strongly protest (the KN-08 development) and lead to rising tension in the peninsula,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

NK to seek advances in weapons program

Under Kim’s leadership, Pyongyang has made strides in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It conducted two nuclear tests in 2016 -- the first time it has ever done so -- and fired more ballistic missiles than in any other year under his and his father Kim Jong-il’s regimes. 

It, however, has remained uncharacteristically quiet on anniversaries like the anniversary of the elder Kim’s death in December. The regime had previously shown a pattern of marking ceremonious occasions with some form of verbal or military provocation. 

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies said that this lack of action appears to reflect the ongoing “dilemma” of Pyongyang.

“It needs to continue the Byungjin policy (a combination of economic and nuclear weapons developments), but the regime has failed to figure out how to push through the (UN-led) economic sanctions and the problems it presents. ... Even more so, it still remains unclear how much nuclear capacity the North must demonstrate for it to be recognized as a nuclear state,” the AIPS report said.

President-elect Donald Trump (Yonhap)
President-elect Donald Trump (Yonhap)
Observers have pointed out that the North may be biding its time in anticipation of the incoming Donald Trump administration in the US, as it may deviate from the incumbent Barack Obama administration.

“In consideration of Trump becoming the US leader, the North is likely to demonstrate its capacity for weapons of mass destruction to an unprecedented extent within 2017. ... Particularly right before the new administration’s launch to show that the Obama administration’s ‘strategic patience’ has failed,” the Asan report said. 

This is in line with South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo’s comment that North Korea is expected to conduct provocations around the joint Seoul-Washington military drills in March. The military action will also be effective in cutting off South Korea-US coordination against the North, the report said, as the ongoing political situation in the South is likely to leave the country virtually leaderless until mid-2017.

Researchers at the AIPS stressed that the North will seek to resume negotiations with the US after expanding its nuclear capacity as much as possible.

Peace gestures

The inter-Korea tensions have surged to the highest point since the 1990s under the belligerent Kim and hawkish Park Geun-hye administration. With the South Korean president going through impeachment trials, experts say inter-Korea relations is highly unlikely to make any ground under the current administration.

Researchers at the Korea Institute for National Unification said South Korea will not likely be able to push ahead with North Korea policies, due to the ongoing political instability. This will motivate the Kim regime to gain an upper hand in its relationship with Seoul by offering “peace gestures” along with military pressure. 

A report by the KINU said the annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle drills starting late February and Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill in August will affect the relationship between Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang. As the allies are expected to snub Pyongyang’s request to cease the drills, the communist regime is likely to up provocations against Seoul.

At the same time, the North is expected to make peace offerings such as cross-border meetings on the civilian, government and military level. 

“(North Korea) will make an announcement on inter-Korea relations to mark the 45th anniversary of the July 4 Joint Statement of 1972 (on the unification of the Koreas) and the 10th anniversary of the Oct. 4 statement of 2007(on improving inter-Korea ties), which will give them an upper hand on the relationship between the Koreas,” the KINU report said. 

The AIPS report also said although the peace offerings may take place earlier in the year, they would be but measures to “save face’ to improve relations with the US. The “audience” would not be the Park leadership, but the incoming administration. 

Relationship with Seoul and Washington

While many experts agree that the North is likely to shift from an exclusively hawkish approach, they remain divided on which country it will actively seek to mend relations with – Seoul or Washington. 

Cheong of the Sejong Institute highlighted that Kim has described the US as “the main enemy of the people” and stressed “improving relationship between the Koreas multiple times. 

He said that the recent victory of the opposition bloc in South Korea -- which is generally more favorable toward talks with the North than the ruling party -- may have contributed to the change in Pyongyang’s attitude.

Cheong said that the launch of the new administration in Seoul will lead to the North emphasizing its relationship with Seoul rather than Washington. 

“The inter-Korea relations will be greatly affected by President Park’s impeachment and the results of the upcoming presidential election. If the election takes place in the first half of the year, the second half will see the Koreas gradually mending ties.

But the KINU report said that the priority of the Kim regime would be to sway the policy of the Trump administration toward the path that is most beneficial to itself. Researchers at the AIPS said that inter-Korea relations in 2017 may not be that different from 2016.

On resuming talks between Pyongyang and Washington, an official from the Unification Ministry said the North has been repeatedly sending a message to Washington to abolish its policy of being hostile toward the North. “It (North Korea) is likely to repeat that (message) and seek to resume talks,” he said.

By Yoon Min-sik (