WASHINGTON - After three summits and several exchanges of letters between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Washington must now deal with Pyongyang’s five missile tests since February and near muted talks on denuclearization, results generated by Trump’s lack of criticism of the launches, experts said.
North Korea fired two more missiles Friday, making the launch a third test in just more than a week. The launch follows two other tests it conducted Wednesday and last Thursday.
Earlier this year, on May 4 and May 9, North Korea conducted launches and broke 18 months of abstaining from raising provocations on the Korean Peninsula as it began denuclearization diplomacy with the Trump administration that culminated in the historical Singapore summit in June 2018.
Friday’s launch marks the fifth launch North Korea has conducted since the Hanoi summit ended without reaching a meaningful agreement on denuclearization in February, stalling talks for months to follow.
Also Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a meeting with North Korea is unlikely to take place in Bangkok at the annual security meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the venue the two sides have used to meet for sideline talks in the past. This year, North Korea did not send Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to the event.
“We stand ready to continue our diplomatic conversations with the North Koreans,” Pompeo said at a news conference in Bangkok. “I regret that it looks like I’m not going to have the opportunity to do that while I’m here in Bangkok, but we’re ready to go.”
Pompeo remained optimistic that the working-level talks Trump and Kim agreed to resume at their impromptu inter-Korean border summit in June “will happen before too long.”
Experts said despite the U.S. efforts, the prospects for denuclearizing are fading as North Korea takes opposite steps as seen through its tests.
“There has been no progress toward North Korean denuclearization since the Singapore summit,” said Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and a current fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Instead, Pyongyang has built another six to seven estimated nuclear weapons and improved the production facilities for its fissile material.”
Evans Revere, acting assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, said, “The opposite of denuclearization is happening, as North Korea continues to expand and enhance its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals.”
Revere said the string of launches demonstrates Pyongyang’s weapons development is becoming more advanced.
In May, Pyongyang tested “an apparent new ballistic missile system that is designed to conduct deep strikes against U.S. and [South Korean] military bases, forces and population centers,” Revere said.
The launch July 25 was aimed at signaling the U.S. that it is determined to ramp up “its nuclear, missile, and first-strike missile capabilities,” he said.
Wednesday’s launch, described as short-range ballistic missiles by Seoul and guided rockets by Pyongyang, was a warning to the international community gathering for a meeting in Bangkok that it is determined “to continue to develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery system” that can attack key South Korean and U.S. military installations, Revere said.
The projectiles launched Friday, assessed by the U.S. and South Korea to be short-range ballistic missiles, are considered similar to the previous ones.
Following Wednesday’s test, North Korea said the new multiple rocket launch system was developed in an effort to modernize its military. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that North Korea’s new submarine, unveiled July 23, is capable of launching ballistic missiles.
The prospects of denuclearizing North Korea began with the historical Singapore summit held in June 2018 when Trump and Kim met and agreed to work toward denuclearization and achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula, although critics argue the joint statement the two issued lacked detailed denuclearization agreements.
Also notable at the Singapore summit was the budding of the so-called Trump-Kim bromance, a relationship that blossomed via several exchanges of “love” letters between the two since then. Trump said he “fell in love” with Kim and has described several letters from him as “beautiful.”
Optimism that had been building toward denuclearization proved to be too tenuous at the Hanoi summit when North Korea revealed it wanted sanctions relief for taking a partial denuclearization step, an offer the U.S. rejected. The summit was abruptly cut short, leading to a diplomatic impasse that lasted several months.
The bromance continued, however, despite lack of progress on denuclearization talks. Even after Pyongyang launched in May what experts described as advanced missiles capable of evading South Korean missile defense system designed to intercept incoming missiles, Trump appeared confident that Kim would denuclearize, emphasizing the pair’s relationship.
While visiting Seoul in June for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump invited Kim to “shake his hand and say Hello” via Twitter. Trump met with Kim at the inter-Korean border, even stepping across the North Korean side of the border. There, the two agreed to resume working-level talks.
But less than a month later, Pyongyang fired missiles last Thursday and again this week on Wednesday and Friday, jolting its neighbors and unnerving North Korean observers in the U.S.
Trump downplayed the provocations saying, “I have no problem,” in response to Friday’s launch, in an apparent effort to save diplomacy.
In response to last week’s launch, Revere, of the State Department, said, “The Trump administration is prepared to go very far to keep the prospect of dialogue with North Korea alive.”
Following North Korea’s missile launches Wednesday, “It was unacceptable for the U.S. president to twice dismiss the threat posed by North Korea’s development” of advanced missiles that is intended to attack [South Korea] and U.S. troops deployed in South Korea,” he added.
Experts said North Korea’s tests make the Trump-Kim relationship look questionable and prospects for diplomatic solutions dubious, while Trump’s lack of criticism on North Korea’s launches fosters bad behavior.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council said, “North Korea’s continued work on its nuclear weapons program and missiles as demonstrated by testing new short-range missiles is beginning to make the Trump-Kim relationship wear thin, if not look like a bit of a fraud.”
Christopher Hill, a chief negotiator with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, said, “I’m skeptical that they have much traction on [diplomacy] right now.”
Revere said, “The lack of a clear and vigorous response to earlier launches effectively gave [North Korea] carte blanche to continue to develop and test these dangerous weapons.” He added, “We have now basically normalized such launches.”
The missile launches are also making experts doubt the prospects for working-level talks with Pyongyang.
Hill said, “I don’t think the North Koreans are really prepared for a serious negotiation. But since they agreed to have a negotiation, I think they ought to move ahead.”
Dennis Wilder, the National Security Council’s senior director for East Asia affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said, “Kim has never been interested in working-level talks with Washington. And I think that’s going to be kind of his continued position.”
If Pyongyang continues to dodge Washington, Hill said, “It’s possible the talks could reach a dead end. That could happen at some point. It may have happened [already], but we don’t know that.”
Wilder said, “It would certainly lead to another very serious deterioration in the U.S.-North Korean relations, as we had at the end of 2017 where there would be threats and counterthreats.”
Wilder, however, did not rule out a sudden turnaround, a possibility in top-down diplomacy where negotiations occur at the leadership level.
“This is the unique feature of Trump diplomacy at this very high level,” Wilder said. “It can change overnight. … When you have two chief executives, who can suddenly make dramatic shifts, possibilities are much wider.”