Trump’s North Korea diplomacy looks troubled. It may not mean war

President Donald Trump’s attempt to make a “great deal” with North Korea over its nuclear program appears increasingly in peril as Kim Jong Un has ordered new missile tests and directed his country’s military “to cope with any emergency.”

“Nobody’s happy,” Trump said Thursday after North Korea launched short-range missiles for the second time in less than a week. On Friday, Kim told his forces to be on high alert after the U.S. seized a large cargo ship that was attempting to smuggle coal out of North Korea in violation of United Nations Security Council sanctions.

“(Kim) stressed the need to further increase the capability of the defense units in the forefront area and on the western front to carry out combat tasks and keep full combat posture,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a state media outlet that rarely quotes Pyongyang’s leader directly, reported. KCNA said Kim “set forth important tasks for further increasing the strike ability” of North Korea’s weapon systems.

Analysts said the implications for Trump’s diplomatic efforts at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula were not entirely clear, and that while North Korea’s escalating rhetoric and military preparedness did not signal war, it showed how far apart the two nations were after two historic summits between Trump and North Korea’s leader. 

“These new developments show that neither country is able to sustain any kind of negotiation beyond the summits,” said Waheguru Pal Singh, a defense and foreign policy expert at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, who has also consulted for the United Nations on international peace and security issues. 

“For me, the key marker will be if the U.S. resumes joint military exercises with South Korea, and how the North reacts,” he said, referring to longstanding annual large-scale Washington-Seoul military drills Trump ended in March to reduce tensions. 

About 28,000 U.S. troops plus thousands more family members and Department of Defense employees are stationed in South Korea, and their presence, and the joint military exercises, have for years been a source of North Korean anger.  

The projectiles North Korea launched Saturday, and then Thursday, were the first since Pyongyang paused missile launches in late 2017. All splash-landed in the Pacific.

Trump has refused to yield to North Korean demands to lift economic sanctions. 

There was further evidence that North Korea may be ramping up its military capabilities even as the Trump administration has insisted the president has maintained a good relationship with Kim despite summits in Singapore and Vietnam that ended with no tangible denuclearization steps for Pyongyang.

On Thursday night, Beyond Parallel, a program affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a global affairs think tank, published new satellite images that appeared to show that North Korea has been secretly operating a missile base that it has never previously disclosed. 

In its analysis of the images, Beyond Parallel said that, though unconfirmed, the “Yusang-ni” base may house intercontinental ballistic missiles with a “first strike” capability against targets located throughout East Asia, the Pacific and the U.S.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has previously said that any missile tests by North Korea involving long-range or intercontinental missiles would be a diplomatic red line.

“It is evident that Trump’s diplomatic strategy has reached an impasse,” said Richard Caplan, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, England. “And trade frictions with China mean that he can’t count on Beijing to rein Kim in,” he added, referring to fraught trade negotiations between the U.S. and China. 

North Korea relies on China for aid, fuel and other imports. Beijing has acted as a buffer between Pyongyang, a close ally, and Washington. Beijing’s escalating trade war with Washington may make it feel less inclined to act as a referee.  

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