North Korea’s continuing drive for nuclear weapons, coupled with its growing isolation, is increasing the danger of further provocations from Pyongyang, U.S. experts warn.
Although the international community is tightening sanctions to punish the North for its nuclear and missile development, Pyongyang appears to be defiant. The North has ramped up its threats against South Korea and the United States and fired more missiles following the U.N.’s adoption of a fresh resolution expanding sanctions against it earlier this month.
North Korea said this week that it had successfully conducted a high-powered, solid-fuel rocket engine test. If confirmed, the move would mark a major step forward in the country’s missile development. Analysts said the progress would allow North Korea to spend less time to launch a missile, which will enhance the country’s missile attack capability.
Frank Jannuzi, president of the Mansfield Foundation, a U.S.-Asia policy think tank, said there is a "great possibility for miscalculation and misunderstanding" by the North Korean leadership. At the same time, he said, there is growing uncertainty about North Korean leaders’ intentions.
"One of the downsides of isolating North Korea is that we also have less ability to monitor what’s really going on and what they’re really thinking and what they’re really calculating about their future," Jannuzi said. "So I think we’re at a dangerous time on the peninsula here."
Pyongyang has often blamed Washington’s "hostile policy" for its development of nuclear weapons. Washington has long maintained that it has no hostile intent toward Pyongyang while seeking denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This week, a senior U.S. official dismissed the North Korean accusation again.
"Collapsing North Korea is not our strategy. If it were, our actions would look a lot different than what they are today," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said at an event in Berlin.
South Korean war veterans hold up their placards during a rally denouncing North Korea's recent threats in Seoul, South Korea, March 25, 2016.
Jannuzi raised doubts that the U.S-led sanctions would curb Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions.
"The last thing he wants to do is to demonstrate that this foreign pressure can force him to capitulate," Jannuzi said.
Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research think tank in Washington, said sanctions slow down Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, although they may not keep the country from pursuing nuclear weapons.
Given Kim’s apparent eagerness to demonstrate his country’s nuclear capabilities, Pyongyang is likely to conduct another nuclear test or launch a long-range missile in the near future, Klingner said.
“Kim Jong Un is really telegraphing that there will be more nuclear tests and more long-range missile tests. He almost seems frustrated that experts don’t believe his capabilities,” the former intelligence official said.
Klingner, however, cautioned against overanalyzing Pyongyang’s behavior, saying not every move is aimed at Washington.
North Korea’s internal politics also play a role in the country’s nuclear stance. Some analysts say Kim is trying to build an image as a strong leader by showing off the country’s nuclear capability to the nation.
Kim Jin-moo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, South Korea’s state-run research institute, speculated that the timing of the fifth nuclear test could be tied to the opening of North Korea’s ruling party gathering in early May.
On Friday, North Korea issued new threats against South Korea, escalating tensions between the two sides. North Korea’s state media said Kim ordered the country’s military to be on high alert and ready for an attack against South Korean leaders.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Korean service.