Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT
North Korea launched an unidentified missile from the eastern port of Sinpo, South Hamkyong Province on Sunday morning, but the test ended in failure since the missile blew up almost immediately after the launch. At a time when US Vice-President Mike Pence was heading to South Korea, the launch was to some extent a warning to Washington.
During the military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday, celebrating the 105th birthday of North Korea's late leader Kim Il-sung, as well as the fifth session of the 13th Supreme People's Assembly on April 11, Pyongyang showed willingness to compromise. It didn't touch the US' bottom line - conducting nuclear test or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test.
North Korea also restored its parliamentary foreign affairs committee lately, which primarily focuses on the nation's diplomacy with the US and South Korea. All this shows Pyongyang may consider going back to the negotiation table.
Since North Korea did not cross the White House's bottom line, it is now looking forward to some positive response from the latter. However, Pyongyang is also worried about whether the US and South Korea will discuss new offensive actions against it during Pence's tour in Seoul. Therefore, the latest missile launch may be a signal that neither US' aircraft carriers nor mounting pressure from the White House could intimidate Pyongyang.
North Korea has a complicated mentality toward the US. If Washington fails to respond to Pyongyang's gesture of compromise, but decides to adopt tougher policies toward Pyongyang during Pence's ongoing Asia tour, it will once again lose North Korea's strategic trust. By then, it would be certain that Pyongyang will carry out its sixth nuclear test and ICBM launch.
North Korea has its own pattern to launch nuclear tests. For instance, all five of its previous nuclear tests were not conducted around spring, when the US-South Korean annual joint military exercises, code-named Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, took place, nor have they been carried out around the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, another annual combined military drill between Washington and Seoul held every autumn which mainly aims at defending South Korea from North Korean attacks.
This indicates that Pyongyang does not intend to openly confront the powerful US, but instead, it waits for the right time to proceed with its nuclear or missile tests based on the development of the situation on the peninsula.
Three generations of North Korean leaders have developed their own diplomatic approach based on interactions with Washington - they know they should reduce the tension at critical moments. But if the US doesn't take the opportunity to negotiate with Pyongyang and keeps resorting to delaying tactics, North Korea won't wait. Once the country conducts its sixth nuclear test, the US will definitely resort to the use of military force and a war will break on the peninsula.
US media recently revealed that the Trump administration's official policy toward North Korea is not aimed at regime change, but to impose "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang to realize denuclearization on the peninsula. Nevertheless, Pyongyang has its conditions before returning to negotiations over denuclearization, such as signing a peace treaty with Washington and discussing the establishment of diplomatic US-North Korean ties. The White House should be aware that only piling pressure on Pyongyang will not work; the two sides have to make joint efforts in resolving the conundrum together.
No country can solve the North Korean nuclear issue unilaterally. The international community should come up with a clear and well-structured plan including supervisory mechanism to monitor not only North Korea, but also Washington and Seoul over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. A number of factors can have serious impacts on the situation, thus, a packaged solution is needed.
The author is a professor on international politics at the College of Public Administration, Jilin University. email@example.com