2017 is a year of ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ for North Korea.
This year, North Korea is standing at a crossroads of either resolving the North Korean sanctions and being recognized as a nuclear power with the newly established US and South Korean governments, or continuing to follow the road of dismal sanctions for five years.
Kim Jong-un announced North Korea’s goal of achieving the status of a nuclear state by 2017 at the 7th Party Congress in May 2016, and has been riding this movement for the past year, but was met with a roadblock due to the international community’s sanctions against North Korea.
When looking at the 2017 New Year’s Address, Kim Jong-un appears to be nervous that his strategic goals will not be achieved in 2017. Kim Jong-un’s “last step” of the intercontinental ballistic missile test, which was mentioned in his Address, is a desperate attempt to use shock tactics on the United States and South Korea in order to pressure them to do according to his wishes.
In 2017, Kim Jong-un’s strategy for South Korea will be one of ‘carrot and stick’ that combines hard-core and soft-line. At present, Kim Jung-un is playing with two cards- a nuclear test and an intercontinental ballistic missile, and he is putting the anhydrous missile and SLBM card on his desk.
What Kim Jong-un really wants is to ease the sanctions on North Korea using his nuclear and missile cards and to create an environment favorable for him to hold onto his power in the long-run.
So when is Kim Jong-un going to strike?
Kim Jong-un will try to avoid provocations until the joint military exercises as he mentioned that he will watch the US-ROK joint military exercises in his New Year’s Address. And so from the inauguration of President Trump in the United States on January 20th, Kim Jong-un will continue to pressure the suspension of nuclear tests and joint military exercises. However, Trump will not be able to stop the joint military exercises within a month of becoming president, and thus joint military exercises are likely to proceed as planned.
In fact, North Korea will also think that the United States and South Korea will not stop the joint military exercises. Eventually, what Pyongyang is pushing for with this issue is a step back in the public debate that will justify the nuclear and missile tests that will inevitably take place and to resolve the nuclear issue with the United States instead of with South Korea. Therefore, it is highly probable that North Korea will launch its 6th nuclear test, intercontinental ballistic missile launch test, medium-range missile or SLBM tests soon after the joint-military exercises.
North Korea will use the joint-military exercises as an excuse to use shock tactics on the United States and South Korea, raise tensions on the Korean peninsula before returning to its disguised-peace talks.
North Korea will put the blame for raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula on the US and South Korea and then will talk about inter-Korean military summits, separated family reunions, inter-Korean confederations of party groups with South Korea, and throw nuclear disarmament and peace treaty proposals to the United States.
What will be the US and South Korea’s response?
In reality, the leverage to stop Kim Jong-un’s behavior is not in the United States and South Korea, and their response can only be seen in principle.
Some hardliners in the United States now claim that the launch of an ICBM can be intercepted in the air, but it is unlikely.
That being said, weakening sanctions against North Korea is also not possible. Inevitably, the United States and South Korea will be forced to coexist with Kim Jong-un and his nuclear ability. The important thing is to continue to maintain the principle of ‘denuclearization as a precondition for dialogue.’ The only way to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is to slowly disintegrate the Kim Jong-un regime with long-term North Korean psychological warfare and international pressure.
It is necessary to raise the intensity of the psychological war on North Korea so that Kim Jong-un stops all the slander and brings up inter-Korean dialogue himself.
In his New Year’s Address, Kim Jong-un stated that he would “thwart the enemy’s sinister and pernicious schemes to check the warm and pure-hearted aspiration of our people who follow the Party single-heartedly and to alienate the Party from them.” These words to the Party Organizations shows how much he is scared of the psychological war against North Korea. There should never be a retreat back to the Sunshine Policy.
Rather there should be a continued effort to separate Kim Jong-un from his people through the principle of aid to North Korea on the condition of on-site distribution.
If Kim Jong-un continues his provocations this year, North Korea needs to be removed from the United Nations and it should be made known to North Korea in advance that diplomatic sanctions will be imposed by the international community to cut off diplomatic ties with North Korea or lower its relations.