We’re back in familiar territory. North Korea is again issuing cryptic threats that officials around the world are scrambling to decipher.
Kim and Trump have met three times in the hopes of striking a deal that would see North Korea trade its nuclear weapons and the missiles used to fire them in exchange for sanctions relief and normalized relations.
Whether this is actually achievable remains uncertain. Even the sharpest and most experienced minds studying North Korea say their predictions as to what happens next are educated guesses.
But there does appear to be some consensus forming – that North Korea is frustrated by what it perceives as a lack of flexibility and creativity from US negotiators. And perhaps more worryingly, whatever it does next will be designed to capture the attention of US President Donald Trump.
Most experts who spoke to CNN believe North Korea’s most likely next step will be an attempt to use a rocket to launch a satellite into orbit.
North Korean state media reported on Saturday that a “another crucial test” was successfully conducted at the country’s Sohae Satellite launching ground, a site that the regime had reportedly vowed to dismantle in talks with the US. It follows a similar announcement from the week before that said a “very important test” took place at the same facility.
Pyongyang claims its space program is for peaceful, scientific purposes. Kim often says he wants to build “the prosperous and powerful socialist nation” through a self-reliant economy based on science and technology. Since taking power after his father’s death in 2011, the young leader has successfully placed two satellites into orbit.
But those excuses have hardly mollified the international community. A satellite launch uses the same technology as firing a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. Indeed, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the most recent test conducted at the satellite launching ground would bolster the country’s “reliable strategic nuclear deterrent.”
And while it is not yet clear what either of the recent tests entailed, each satellite North Korea puts into orbit could offer vital information to its advanced – but likely incomplete – ballistic missile program, experts say.
“They (North Korea) have yet to demonstrate the ability to bring a large payload back into the Earth’s atmosphere, a critically important requirement for their military ICBM program,” said Evans Revere, a former Korea expert at the State Department.
Revere, who is currently a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the international community shouldn’t be surprised if this “‘satellite launch’ includes a demonstration of their ability to send a major payload into the North Pacific.”
“The ominous message conveyed by that to the United States would be that the DPRK does indeed have the ability to strike the US homeland with a nuclear weapon,” he said, using an acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea did something similar in 2012, when Pyongyang and Washington struck a deal exchanging a moratorium on ballistic missile and nuclear testing and the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for several hundred tons of food aid.
But there was nothing mentioned about satellite launches. The so-called “Leap Day Deal” collapsed after the North launched a satellite weeks later, because the two sides fundamentally disagreed over whether a satellite launch vehicle counted as a long-range missile.
And that debate likely remains to this day.
After the summit between President Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February ended abruptly and without a deal, Trump claimed Kim had given him a verbal guarantee “he’s not going to do testing of rockets or missiles or anything having to do with nuclear.” Trump did not specify satellite launches, so they still occupy something of a gray area.
Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, says this discrepancy shows all the more reason why Washington should have pushed for a “clearly quantified a nuclear and missile test freeze that would have provided for the foundation for negotiation.”
Mount says whatever Pyongyang chooses as its gift or new path, none of this should come as a surprise to the Trump administration.
“Over the course of this year, (North Korea has) consistently escalated its pressure on the US trying to force them to capitulate on negotiations,” he said. “The Trump administration sort of sleep-walked through that entire process and it’s only in the last couple of weeks that they’ve woken up and they face a potential crisis here.”
An ICBM or nuclear test
An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a nuclear test would be more provocative than a satellite test and would certainly get Trump’s attention.
Back in 2017, Pyongyang referred to its first test-launch of an ICBM – the type of missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets across the planet – as a “gift” for Washington. The test took place on July 4 – US Independence Day. Kim would go on to test two more ICBMs that year and conduct the biggest underground nuclear test to date.
“If you look at the history of Kim Jong Un, he becomes most provocative when people stop paying attention to him,” said US Rep. Ami Bera, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation.
The Kim regime also knows either firing an ICBM or detonating a nuclear weapon would be seen as a major provocation by the US and the world, including its main ally, China.
“If North Korea wants to have sanctions relief, more testing and provocations are not the path forward,” Bera said.
Revere said it’s possible the US and South Korea could respond to such actions with “military exercises, new US military deployments on and around the Korean peninsula, a major ramping-up of tensions (a la 2017) and the breakdown of the diplomatic process and with it the end of any prospects for sanctions easing.”
North Korea hasn’t detonated a nuclear weapon or test-fired an ICBM since 2017. Last year, Pyongyang blew up some of the tunnels at its nuclear test site, Punggye-ri.
But experts were unsure if this was cosmetic and irreversible – journalists, not experts, were the only ones invited to the detonation ceremony.
“Whatever the North Koreans have in mind, we should remember their capacity for exceeding our expectations of their capabilities and for doing whatever they deem necessary to enhance their nuclear deterrent, regardless of the diplomatic price to be paid,” said Revere.
“Don’t underestimate them.”