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North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Seen as Attention-grabbing Stunt

  • William Kim

People walk past a television news broadcast at a railway station in Seoul on Jan. 1, 2017, showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year's speech.

While North Korea’s recent claim of an imminent intercontinental ballistic missile test is spreading alarm globally, U.S. experts see it as a bid for attention and a gambit to intimidate the incoming U.S. administration.

On Sunday, the North’s state-run news agency, KCNA, reported that the country can fire off an ICBM “anytime and anywhere,” reiterating the position that the communist state is bolstering nuclear arms capabilities for “self-defense” against the U.S.

The announcement was met with sharp criticism from the U.S. State Department, which said the U.S. military retains substantial capability to defend the U.S. and its allies, and it is “prepared to use that capability when necessary.”

“I think it’s just a statement of fact that we can launch it anytime rather than a threat of imminent activity,” said Bruce Klinger, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asia Studies Center.

Pressure against Trump

Klinger, who spent almost two decades in the U.S. intelligence community, said the latest saber rattling from Pyongyang appears to be an attempt to push President-elect Donald Trump and his national security team, whose policy toward North Korea still remains under wraps, to comply with its own terms.

A man in South Korea watches a TV news program showing a missile launch conducted by North Korea, Oct. 20, 2016. The U.S. military says called the event a 'failed' North Korean missile launch.
A man in South Korea watches a TV news program showing a missile launch conducted by North Korea, Oct. 20, 2016. The U.S. military says called the event a 'failed' North Korean missile launch.

Pyongyang has long urged Washington to accept the country as a nuclear state, abandon the strategic alliance with South Korea, and pull U.S. troops out of the Western Pacific region.

“They are trying to influence the incoming administration just like they’ve tried to influence the past several administrations,” Klinger said. “It’s the same game plan that Pyongyang has been pursuing for quite some time.”

Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, said the regime’s intention is not only to grab the media’s attention, but also to appeal to Trump that North Korea is a current threat that needs to be ranked at the top of the U.S. security agenda.

“He [Kim] also wants the American people to know he’s very strong and he poses a threat potentially, even though he hasn’t demonstrated he can yet,” Bennett said. “He wants to create that image so that we treat him as someone who’s important.”

Despite North Korea’s claimed ICBM capability, it is unclear where Pyongyang stands on the ability.

Capability unknown

The U.S. State Department said last week the North has yet to acquire the ability to outfit an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead. In an email sent to VOA this week, Justin Higgins, State Department EAP Press Office Director, stressed that the U.S. is determined to improve its missile defense capability.

Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, is doubtful that Pyongyang can pull off a successful ICBM test at the moment.

“Getting an ICBM to work, getting re-entry vehicle to land and hit a target with a nuclear warhead on it is a very difficult idea, and in order to achieve that you have to do a lot of testing,” said Manning. He added that it will take North Korea at least four or five years to acquire the capability.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, former U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, however, warned the North Korean threat is impending.

“They are talking about test-launching an ICBM, which is a real possibility in 2017,” DeTrani said. “It’s a threat to the region and to the United States also, given the fact that it could deliver a nuclear weapon.”

Increased sanctions

Recently, the U.S. has been upping pressure on the North in coordination with South Korea and Japan, in hopes of disarming the regime and bringing it back to negotiations.

“[We] sent a very clear message that the international community will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea and that the Kim regime will face ever-increasing consequences for its callous and reckless nuclear and missile pursuits,” said Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken at deputy-level trilateral talks with Seoul and Tokyo last week. The statement was made in reference to the latest U.N. resolution adopted last November.

On Tuesday, the State Department said Washington is still hoping the six-party talks, multi-state nuclear talks that have been stalled since late 2008, are “a mechanism that could potentially bring” Pyongyang back into discussions about its nuclear weapons program.

Lee Jee-eun contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with VOA's Korean Service.

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