By John Delury
The US president has postured and threatened while Kim Jong-un has simply ploughed on building a nuclear warhead and a missile that can carry it
North Korea’s apparent sixth nuclear test is not a surprise to anyone who follows the regime’s programme closely. Since April, the analysts at 38 North have been saying the regime was ready, and South Korean intelligence has been predicting it since last week. There is a narrative that the North Koreans are overtaking our expectations – true, perhaps, in terms of their capabilities, but not in terms of the likelihood of the test itself.
Kim Jong-un wants us to see this is as a weaponisation test for his intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). We need time and technical analysis on that point. But it is clear they are barrelling ahead with their nuclear and missile programme. And we need to find an off-ramp.
The test does not fundamentally change the situation on the Korean peninsula, though it is another acceleration. What is still missing is diplomacy. It is up to the Trump administration whether they want to flip this into an opportunity to belatedly start talking directly to Pyongyang, or just continue down the beaten track of shows of force, more UN sanctions, and secondary sanctions. More of the same stuff that has been done for the last eight years.
Donald Trump has tried to convince the public that he has talked tough and now the regime respects him for it. But that is incredibly simplistic, and shows how much learning has to be done to understand what is really going on. Trump’s signalling to North Korea is all over the map and that is part of the problem – because actually, the North Korean signals are fairly consistent. Incredibly, as all this is taking place, it is being reported that Trump is thinking of withdrawing from the free trade agreement with South Korea.
Trump has rebooted his team to some extent – a new chief-of-staff is trying to get things in order. On North Korea, they need to have a real huddle and rethink their approach.