Pushing and Pulling

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North Korea recently fired an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan, one of five such launches in the region over a week-long period despite the crippling sanctions against the autocratic Asian country. The missile fell harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean, the Japan Times reported. But Japanese leaders issued a rare alert instructing people to take cover for the first time since 2017.

The American, South Korean and Japanese navies were conducting anti-submarine warfare and the Chinese and Russian navies were conducting maneuvers around Japan when the missiles were launched, according to a US Naval Institute news piece. They also came as US Vice President Kamala Harris was visiting South Korea, Axios added.

These missile tests raised concerns because they came on the heels of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un declaring that his country would always be a nuclear state and codifying North Korea’s sovereign right to launch preemptive nuclear strikes, the Washington Post wrote.

“The utmost significance of legislating (this) nuclear weapons policy is to draw an irretrievable line so that there can be no bargaining over our nuclear weapons,” said Kim in an address to the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Analysts say Kim’s announcement has painted his regime into a corner. By ruling out denuclearization, he was unilaterally removing one of his best sources of leverage over the international community, reported Voice of America.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol denounced the move, saying North Korea would face a devastating response if Kim ever dropped an atomic bomb on a neighbor, CNN added. He called on Kim to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula so that the two countries could live in harmony.

But Kim might have unveiled the new stance in response to South Korea’s so-called “decapitation strategy,” a plan to preemptively eliminate Kim, other key North Korean leaders and the state’s vital military sites before the Hermit Kingdom has a chance to release a nuclear strike, Reuters explained. The new North Korean policy authorizes top officials to launch a strike in the event that Kim has been killed or incapacitated.

The belligerent policy might also have been designed to frighten American and other officials into considering concessions in potential negotiations over sanctions and other issues, Kyung Hee University United Nations studies professor Oh Joon said in an interview with Channel News Asia.

North Korea’s economy, normally reeling from sanctions, is also still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, when traffic between the country and China temporarily shut down, wrote Al Jazeera. Ninety percent of North Korean trade is with China.

It’s hard to tell whether Kim is crying for help or pushing it away.

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