North Korea has been steadily increasing its saber rattling as more and more time passes without progress on nuclear talks with President Trump.
This past week, North Korea conducted its first weapons test since the failed summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February.
The test did not violate Pyongyang’s self-imposed moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, allowing it to avert a fierce U.S. response. But it is being interpreted as a sign of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s growing impatience, raising worries that the provocations will continue to escalate.
“Kim is trying to make a statement to the Trump administration that his military potential is growing by the day and that his regime is becoming frustrated with Washington’s lack of flexibility in recent negotiations,” Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said in a statement.
The test — which state media described as the test-firing of a “new-type tactical guided weapon” — came days after Kim gave the United States an end-of-year deadline to be more flexible in negotiations.
The Trump administration has had a muted response to the weapons test.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stressed that the weapon tested was not a ballistic missile while declining to elaborate on any more specifics.
“I’m not being cagey here. It’s just what’s important is it wasn’t ballistic,” Shanahan said, adding that the absence of a ballistic missile is a “statement in and of itself.”
On Friday, Shanahan added he didn’t “have the details” on whether the test was of components for an anti-tank weapon, as reported by CNN. The fact that he hasn’t been “chasing it,” he added, should “give you kind of a sense of where it ranks” in priority.
Because the weapon was not a ballistic missile, it did not violate the testing moratorium Trump has repeatedly touted as a sign his approach is working.
The weapon also did not violate U.N. sanctions, which cover only ballistic missiles.
“This type of low-level military activity is not one that requires really a diplomatic response or a sanctions response,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Not all North Korean military activity is a signal to the U.S.,” he said. “Big things like nuclear tests and long-range or intermediate-range missile tests are both military and political or diplomatic signals, but lower-range missiles or other activity isn’t necessarily always a signal to the U.S.”
“That said, there are certainly enough other signals indicating that North Korea doesn’t intend to denuclearize or that it’s looking for the U.S. to change its policy,” he added.
Trump and Kim’s second summit ended without a denuclearization agreement because of an impasse over how much sanctions relief the United States would give and how much North Korea would give up to get it.
Since the summit, there has been no indication that the two sides are closer to a deal. But there have been several signs of North Korea turning to more coercive diplomacy.
In the days after the summit, commercial satellite imagery showed North Korea rebuilt a satellite launch site Kim promised at the first summit that he would dismantle.
On the diplomatic front, North Korea said on the same day as the recent weapons test that it wanted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to be replaced as head of U.S. negotiations.
In a statement published by the Korean Central News Agency, Foreign Ministry official Kwon Jong Gun said Pompeo has been “letting loose reckless remarks and sophism of all kinds against us every day.”
“Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the U.S., I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but other person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us,” the statement said.
On Friday, Pompeo dismissed the call to replace him.
“Nothing’s changed,” Pompeo said at a news conference alongside Shanahan and their Japanese counterparts. “We’re continuing to work, to negotiate. Still in charge of the team. President Trump’s obviously in charge of the overall effort, but it’ll be my team.”
But there are diplomatic changes taking place in North Korea.
The Kremlin announced this past week that Kim will travel to Russia in late April to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time. North Korea has relied on Russia as well as China to shield it from even more biting United Nations sanctions.
Ahead of Kim’s visit to Russia, the Trump administration’s special envoy for North Korea negotiations, Stephen Biegun, was in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday to “discuss efforts to advance the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” the State Department said in a brief statement announcing the trip.
With little progress to show since February’s failed summit, the Trump administration’s approach is coming under increasing criticism.
Klingner, for example, has been critical of the administration’s overall approach to North Korea, saying its so-called maximum pressure campaign has “never been maximum” because more sanctions could be levied.
But he compared the recent weapons test to one in November that Pyongyang called an “ultramodern tactical weapon.” It is still unclear exactly what type of weapon was tested then, but neither November or this week is an example of “worrisome missile activity,” Klingner said.
But others are worried this past week’s test is a sign North Korea is starting down a path that could lead to a return to the days when Trump was threatening “fire and fury.”
“Sadly, we are only one [intercontinental ballistic missile] test away from another crisis with Pyongyang,” Kazianis said, “and these smaller tests only bring us closer to such a moment.”