SEOUL -- North Korea has refrained from missile testing of late, but the pause does not mean the regime is in any way amenable to giving up the nuclear weapons program that serves as crucial leverage in dealing with the U.S.
Pyongyang has not launched a missile since it sent an intermediate-range ballistic missile over northern Japan on Sept. 15. But the rhetoric has only intensified. The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, a mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, recently warned that war with America could break out at any moment and called U.S. President Donald Trump a maniac.
Trump had harsh words for Pyongyang on his Asia tour this week, calling North Korea "a hell that no person deserves" in a speech here. Getting the increasingly tense situation under control is entirely Washington's responsibility, according to the Rodong Sinmun.
Trump's demand for "complete, verifiable and total" denuclearization as a prerequisite for talks toward rapprochement is unacceptable to Pyongyang. North Korean leaders see a full nuclear arsenal both ensuring the stability of Kim Jong Un's government and providing a means of extracting aid from the U.S. This line of thinking has only been strengthened by such examples as Libya, which saw its leader overthrown after giving up its nuclear weapons program, and Iraq, which America invaded in the name of disarmament.
Pyongyang will continue its nuclear armament until the U.S. makes the right choice of coexisting with it peacefully as a nuclear power, said Choi Sun Hee, head of North American affairs at North Korea's foreign ministry, at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference in October. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis later said America would never "accept North Korea as a nuclear power."
But as the rhetoric has intensified, so has Pyongyang's alarm over the pain from international sanctions. The United Nations Security Council on Sept. 11 barred U.N. member states from accepting 90% of North Korean exports by value, denying the government a good deal of income needed for weapons and economic development.
During the recent pause in arms testing, Kim has made highly publicized inspections of orchards, military-controlled farms, and factories for such goods as shoes, cosmetics and automobiles. These visits stand in stark contrast to the leader's many appearances at military facilities and weapons-testing sites starting in July.
The cabinet recently held an extended session to discuss strengthening domestic industries including power generation, rail shipping, chemicals, and coal and metal mining in light of a decision by the Workers' Party Central Committee to enhance economic self-reliance, the Korean Central News Agency reported Tuesday. The country will obliterate U.S. sanctions with science and technology and rapidly achieve self-sufficiency across the economy, according to KCNA.
Still on track
This declaration of self-reliance is a sign that Pyongyang intends to continue nuclear development regardless of sanctions. Only a few more missile tests are needed to complete an intercontinental ballistic missile by Sept. 9, 2018, when the North will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding, according to Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute's Department of Unification Strategy Studies.
The next launch may not be far off. Vehicles have been observed in motion at missile facilities in Pyongyang, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service. Similar activity has been confirmed in tunnels at a nuclear testing facility. The North is at work on submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well.
After Trump announced in his September speech to the U.N. that the U.S. is prepared to "totally destroy North Korea" if necessary, Kim said the North would consider the "highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history" in response.
"They can't falter on their next step, and so they're taking plenty of time to prepare," a military expert said.