Read: The U.S. and North Korea are back to talking tough
“North Korea’s military posturing is partially for domestic political consumption and partially an effort to complicate politics for Trump and Moon to elicit concessions,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told me. “But while the Kim regime is likely aiming its provocations just below the threshold for a response from the U.S. and its allies in terms of increasing sanctions or scaling up military exercises, it may miss the mark.”
Ahead of the Vietnam summit came the rebuilding of a rocket-launch site that Kim had partially demolished. Then came the test of a mysterious conventional weapon in April, the firing last weekend of what the South Korean government euphemistically referred to as “projectiles” that traveled between 45 and 125 miles, and the launch this week of two short-range missiles that flew 260 and 170 miles, respectively—after more than 500 days of no testing. To make sure the message wasn’t lost on the Americans, the latest weapons demonstration came as Trump’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, was visiting South Korea and as the U.S. military tested a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, in California.
What Kim hasn’t done yet is break last year’s vow and resume nuclear and long-range missile tests, the actions that nearly precipitated a military conflict between the United States and North Korea in 2017 as the North refined its capability to target the U.S. homeland with nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
On Sunday, in a move that must not have been especially heartening for U.S. allies in the crosshairs of North Korea’s firepower displays, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled that merely letting loose rocket launchers and short-range ballistic missiles wasn’t enough to sway the United States off its diplomatic course. But he also suggested that any tests of weapons that directly threaten the United States could torpedo the talks. Kim’s testing moratorium was focused “on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States for sure,” he noted.
Kim is headed in that dangerous direction, even if he’s still a ways off, having given Trump a year-end deadline to adopt a more flexible approach to negotiations. The U.S. administration’s current position, which has only become more deeply entrenched since the Vietnam summit, is to maintain sanctions until North Korea fully gives up its weapons of mass destruction.
Read: How did North Korea’s missile and nuclear tech get so good so fast?
North Korea’s leader “has said that if the U.S. doesn’t change its position by the end of the year, they’re going to find a ‘new’ way, and I think what we’re starting to learn is that the new way is going to look a lot like the old way,” the nuclear-nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis told me. “I don’t know how one can look at this particular trajectory and conclude that we’re headed anyplace other than an ICBM test, probably early next year if nothing changes.”