Pyongyang’s May 4 test firing of short-range projectiles into the Sea of Japan—the regime’s first missile launch since the Singapore and Hanoi summits—is a clear sign of Kim Jong Un’s disappointment with President Trump’s retention of punishing economic sanctions against North Korea as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign.
The test firings are part and parcel of Kim’s efforts to pressure Trump during denuclearization negotiations following February’s Hanoi summit. It also signals Kim’s increasing desperation, particularly after his much-hyped April 25 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin does not appear likely to yield concrete results towards sanctions relief, as billed.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has yet to visit Kim in North Korea despite pledging in October of last year to do so. A date for the trip has yet to be announced.
The May 4 launch drills also reveal the Kim dynasty’s disregard for the well-being of its people. They occurred a day after the United Nations published a report stating that 40 percent of North Korea’s population (approximately 10.1 million people) face prospects of malnutrition as it encounters a food crisis.
Tragically, this is the latest in a long tradition of the regime prioritizing scarce resources for its military and elites over the feeding of its citizens, all while Kim’s own weight has ballooned to an estimated 287 pounds.
Yet, North Korea has not been above using starvation as a negotiating tactic. In the past, Pyongyang has appealed to humanitarian concerns as a way to dilute US sanctions. It is likely that Kim will take up this argument again and assert that Washington’s tough stance is contributing to the North’s food insecurity.
Kim is clearly frustrated. Although analysts estimate that the projectiles fired on May 4 were not of the designation of weapons that North Korea pledged to the US to cease testing, the launches indicate Kim’s resentment of Trump’s refusal to grant his regime concessions and that a missile testing regimen will therefore be restarted.
Along these lines, Kim took pains to vent his displeasure during his April 11 speech to his rubber-stamp legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, stating that he is only interested in meeting Trump for a third summit if Washington approaches talks with the “right attitude.”
He also announced that he would wait until the end of 2019 for Washington to be more flexible and proclaimed that “it is essential for the US to quit its current calculation method and approach us with a new one.”
Moreover, the missile tests of this past weekend show Pyongyang’s intention of reminding Washington that its weapons program still poses a threat to the US as the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway.
Amid these various signals coming from the North, it can be argued that Trump has not taken Kim’s bait. The President’s response avoided the lifting of sanctions and refrained from personal affronts and threats of war, opting to charm Kim personally, tweeting “He knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me.”
Trump has also dangled prospects for future economic benefits, writing that Kim will not jeopardize “the great economic potential of North Korea.”
This personalized outreach towards Kim has contrasted with the firmer lines that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are known to prefer for policy towards Pyongyang. Together, both approaches serve as a good cop, bad cop engagement of Kim.
The issue remains that Pyongyang wants desperately for sanctions to be eased. The projectile launches of May 4 is a strategic attempt by Kim to procure US aid prior to his regime taking concrete and verifiable denuclearization measures.
Yet, Trump appears to have no interest in complying with Kim’s wishes until there is progress towards denuclearization. Therein the impasse.
Going forward, Trump has stated an openness to another summit, and U.S. Special Representative For North Korea Stephen Biegun will head to Tokyo and Seoul this week for talks. The Trump administration must be cognizant of the risks and costs to drawn out diplomacy with the North. Over multiple administrations, Pyongyang has mastered the art of watering down demands as discussions drag on over the course of weeks, months and even years.
For the time being, Washington can take away from this weekend’s missile tests that Kim is worried and that his anxiety may lead to further impetuous behavior, if history is any indication. We are also reminded of the regime’s brutal nature and lack of hesitation in steering available provisions to its military complex as its citizens starve.
Ted Gover, Ph.D., writes on US-Asian relations and foreign policy, and he is the director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.