North Korea
Kim Jong Un has vowed to strengthen North Korea's nuclear deterrent Image Credit: AFP

North Korea fired two short-range missiles into the sea last week as part of its latest weapon tests. I remember in 2005, when North Korea had done a missile test, in response to a question from a journalist of the Swedish Radio, I wrote that North Korea is like a spoiled child engaged in attention-seeking behaviour.

More than one and half decades have passed, Kim Jong-il has died, Kim Jong-un has become the Supreme Leader since 2011, North Korea is still engaged in seeking the attention of the US.

Donald Trump, while in office, had often claimed of enjoying ‘great relationship’ with Kim. Both had held a summit in 2018 in Singapore and then in February 2019 in Hanoi. Two and half years have passed since his last summit with Trump, so Kim is getting restless as his nuclear diplomacy with the US is in limbo. Joe Biden has almost ignored Kim during his presidency.

A barrage of missiles

After a six-month lull, North Korea has again started firing all sorts of missiles in September, from a nuclear-capable cruise missile to railway-borne ballistic missiles to anti-aircraft missiles. For decades now, North Korea has been developing highly sophisticated missile technology amid strict sanctions.

Suppose North Korea’s claim of the successful test of its Hwasong-8 last week is correct. In that case, it joins a small group of countries, including the US, Russia, China, and India, in developing a hypersonic missile.

In the last month alone, North Korea has conducted four tests of its advanced missile technology. Besides world-class missile technology, North Korea has a very active military nuclear weapons programme. As per the SIPRI estimate, the country already possesses 40-50 nuclear warheads, and it continues to produce fissile material to make 6-7 more every year.

Though not a recognised nuclear power, North Korea has conducted at least six nuclear tests since 2006. With each test, its nuclear explosions have grown in power, and the 2017 test was so powerful that it supports North Korea’s claim of developing a hydrogen bomb. The satellite images of its Yongbyon nuclear complex indicate that North Korea is expanding its uranium enrichment plant.

Expanding nuclear weapon programme

The military nuclear programme continues to be the main thrust of North Korea’s security strategy as the regime believes that nuclear weapons deter foreign enemies and augment the image of the Supreme Leader. Besides its world-class missiles and expanding nuclear weapon programme, North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest 1.3 million-strong army and an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

International sanctions against Pyongyang have failed to force Kim to denuclearise the country, rather the opposite. Despite his bonhomie with Trump, Kim has continued strengthening his military and improving its missile and nuclear technology. However, the country continues to face a terrible economic crisis.

Its mismanaged state-controlled economy is seriously struggling to stay afloat due to continuing US-led sanctions and prolonged Covid-19 pandemic. Floods and food shortages have made the situation worse.

A toned-down affair

Kim is trying his best to send a message through a barrage of missile tests to Biden about his regime’s importance for the region’s security, if not for the world. However, at the same time, he has refrained from engaging in war rhetoric and calling Biden names. The military parade, held on September 8 to celebrate North Korea’s 73rd anniversary, was a toned-down affair.

The parade was more focused on the pandemic and public security, not the militaristic displays. Unlike previous occasions, this military parade refrained from displaying provocative strategic weapons. Kim also did not deliver a speech, which has been often laced with anti-America provocative rhetoric in the past. Kim has also maintained a moratorium on long-range missile testing that can reach American shores.

There is no doubt that Kim’s mixed messages show his keenness to initiate a dialogue with the US. On the one hand, he expects North Korea to be recognised as nuclear power, and at the same time, he needs the sanctions to be lifted for the country’s economy to survive.

Moreover, he also needs the West to get the Covid vaccines. But Biden is following a policy of strategic patience and is staying away from active engagement. Since coming to power, Biden’s foreign policy plate has been overflowing with critical issues — From China to climate change, Afghanistan to Iran, and Ethiopia to Israel. Biden has not followed up Trump’s summit diplomacy but relies on a deterrence policy through economic sanctions.

However, for almost seven decades, the containment strategy has not worked. North Korea’s conventional and nuclear military power are not only enough to create a survival crisis for South Korea but also can pose serious security danger beyond the region. In his final months in office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is very much interested in a diplomatic breakthrough.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Moon has proposed to bring a formal end to the Korean War, which had ended with the Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953.

Both countries are still technically at war since then. Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong, promoted last week to North Korea’s top-decision-making body, the State Affairs Commission, has talked about North’s willingness to resume talks.

Biden must take the opportunity and resume the dialogue with North Korea. A working relationship between Biden and Kim is necessary to avoid a potentially devastating nuclear crisis.

Continued confrontation has not managed to keep North Korea away from possessing nuclear weapons. Why not give a chance to peace in the Korean peninsula through dialogue and diplomacy?