North Korea test-fired what were believed to be two intermediate range missiles into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday morning, only hours after asking for talks with the United States late on Monday.
According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the missiles were fired from the vicinity of Pyongyang and splashed down after flying about 330 kilometers. It was the 10th such test this year.
The mini-barrage came after First Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui’s announcement late Monday that Pyongyang sought to restart denuclearization talks with Washington in late September, and asked that Washington offer a new proposal acceptable to North Korea.
Time for talks
“I believe that the US side will come out with a proposal geared to the interests of [North Korea] and the US and based on the calculation method acceptable to us,” Choe said, according to state media.
However, if Washington sticks to “the worn-out scenario which has nothing to do with the new calculation method,” then “dealings may come to an end,” she added.
After a reshuffle in its negotiating team following the failure of previous officials to reach a breakthrough, Choe is Pyongyang’s lead working-level denuclearization negotiator.
North Korea-US talks have been in suspended animation since their bilateral leaders’ summit in Hanoi in February ended with no agreement.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump met briefly for a hastily arranged photo opportunity and talks in the DMZ in June, and agreed to follow up with working-level talks.
However, no discussions have taken place since then, despite repeated signals from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – an unpopular figure in Pyongyang – that Washington is good to go.
The reluctance of North Korea to return to talks may have been due to their anger at South Korea-US military drills. Summer drills, which this year were kept low key, ended last month.
What does Kim want?
The binary signals sent by Pyongyang late Monday and early Tuesday were classic North Korea – dangling a carrot while brandishing a stick.
“They want to show the Americans that if they are not taken seriously, or if the Americans are too demanding, they will be able to create a lot of trouble,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kukmin University, told Asia Times.
While short-range missiles do not appear to concern Trump, who has brushed them off on the grounds that they are neither intercontinental missiles nor nuclear tests, they are a significant security issue for Washington ally Tokyo.
Seoul, keen to engage Pyongyang, was also threatened by recent tests of North Korean short range ballistic missiles and multiple launch rocket systems, but politically appears less disturbed.
In terms of North Korea’s near-term goals in talks, Lankov suggested an agreement signed by Trump, the only US leader who has directly engaged with North Korea.
“They want working level negotiations because they want a compromise, they understand that Donald Trump is a person who can sign an agreement which will implicitly accept that they are a nuclear state for the time being,” the expert said.
If talks do take place, both parties will be severely limited by their respective negotiating stances.
In recent months, North Korea has pivoted away from demands made last year for an end to the Korean War and for building relations between the two capitals. Instead, it has called for relief from UN Security Council sanctions.
However, Trump has been consistent that he will maintain sanctions pressure until North Korean denuclearizes – a commitment few experts believe Kim is willing to undertake, despite his statements to that effect.
Timing is another factor. Kim has said in public statements that he will give the current engagement process until the end of this year to deliver results. It is, however, unclear if he will stick to this statement. It is equally uncertain what his alternative strategy may be.