PEOPLE IN SEOUL watch a TV news report on North Korea’s launch of an ICBM that landed close to Japan last November.
(photo credit: KIM HONG/ REUTERS)
For North Korea, 2017 was about showing the US and the world that it could fire ICBMs which can hit the mainland US and that the destructive force of its nuclear weapons has significantly increased.
Many thought that the US and North Korea tension came the closest to nuclear war the world has seen since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
What will 2018 be about? And what might this mean for the Iranian nuclear issue? From a New Year’s speech by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang may suddenly want to talk.
Of course, Kim sent a variety of contradictory messages.
He offered both the threat of a nuclear attack on the US and an olive branch of sorts.
On one hand, he said that the North had successfully shown it can hit the mainland US with nuclear weapons, said building his nuclear arsenal would continue and threatened the US that he could “push the button” to fire a nuclear weapon from his desk at anytime.
Sounds pretty threatening.
Then in the same speech, he said he was open to talks with South Korea and would even like to participate in next month’s Winter Olympics which the South is hosting.
If this sounds bizarre, Emily Landau, who is the Arms Control head at the Institute for National Security Studies, said it is actually a blast from the past.
“It meets the pattern established by his father that economic issues are always part of the dynamics of the nuclear issue. Every time North Korea agreed to go to the negotiating table and to give something on the nuclear front, its interest was economic assistance, and then it usually backtracked on nuclear concessions,” said Landau.
With that in mind, it is important to note that last month the UN hit Pyongyang with some of the harshest economic sanctions it has ever faced. That means that however brash and bombastic Kim has seemed at times, he may genuinely be more concerned now about the economic situation than before. This could be especially true as the UN vote showed that however isolated the US may be in other areas of international relations, the entire world is as annoyed at North Korea’s continuous march as the US.
But Landau cautioned against any thought that Kim’s readiness regarding nuclear concessions to South Korea or the West would come anywhere near what the West has demanded.
If the West is demanding full denuclearization, she expects Kim not to offer anything more than closing down nuclear facilities which can later be reopened a pattern Pyongyang has followed repeatedly in the past.
And yet even if Kim’s potential offered concessions fall short, Landau is concerned that simply the appearance of switching from being bombastic to being cooperative may be enough to relieve some of the pressure the world currently has on North Korea to change its behavior.
One likely clear positive from Kim’s speech could be that Kim’s nuclear threats themselves were conditional. He said the North would not initiate a nuclear war and would only act in self-defense.
This is different from some past statements which have sounded like he was ready to carry out a nuclear first strike on the US or others simply for not acting as he wished even on lesser issues.
Landau also connected the events to the nuclear standoff with Iran.
“Just seeing how helpless the international community is when facing a state which has crossed the nuclear threshold and which is already a nuclear state,” should give the West pause regarding Iran.
She said that “all the talk about denuclearization doesn’t look like it will happen. They have a lot of power and strategic sway... That is what Iran can become when you rely on diplomacy.”
So is an end to public nuclear threats and a new round of talks with North Korea on the horizon?
Some of that probably depends on whether Pyongyang thinks it has sufficient world attention to eventually get reduced sanctions and economic assistance. If it participates in the Olympics that will keep it in the news even without having to carry out another major nuclear test.
After that, the ball may also be in Donald Trump’s court with former US armed forces commander Mike Mullen saying on Sunday that he was worried that the US president’s aggressiveness may lead to an unintended miscalculation and war.
Either way, North Korea and the implications it has for addressing the Iran nuclear issues, promises to continue to be in the headlines in 2018.