Kim Jong-un’s bellicose stance could signal conflict, or his preference for a President Trump | North Korea

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When a highly militarised dictatorship fires artillery shells in the direction of its neighbour, which it has just denounced as its “greatest enemy”, then tests cruise missiles and underwater nuclear attack drones, it is reasonable to believe that armed conflict could follow.

But when that country is North Korea, conventional geopolitical punditry is often left wanting.

Even so, recent actions by Kim Jong-un’s regime have been coated in more than the usual thin veneer of belligerence towards its adversaries in Seoul and Washington.

The year was barely days old when Pyongyang sent hundreds of artillery rounds into the West Sea, close to islands just south of the northern limit line – the de facto maritime border with South Korea that Kim recently said he no longer recognises.

That was followed by tests of what the North described as an “underwater nuclear weapon system” – a capability that would make its attacking options far more mobile and harder to detect – in response to joint military drills by the US, South Korea and Japan. It also claimed to have tested a solid-fuelled ballistic missile with a hypersonic warhead. On Sunday, Kim oversaw the test launch of a “new strategic cruise missile” from a submarine, according to state media, and on Tuesday South Korea said that multiple unidentified cruise missiles had been fired into the sea off its west coast.

The world is used to ostentatious displays of North Korean missile technology, each test a reminder that decades of international sanctions have failed to bring Kim’s nuclear ambitions to heel. It has grown accustomed, too, to the regime’s routine justification – that its nuclear arsenal is a defensive response to the threat posed by “hostile forces”, namely the US and its east Asian allies South Korea and Japan.

But Kim’s recent pronouncements have caused more alarm than usual. They may not have included threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames”, but his animosity towards his neighbour is arguably more worrying for the absence of violent rhetoric.

In a speech this month to the North’s rubber-stamp parliament, Kim described the South as his country’s “principal enemy” and warned that the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula was no longer possible, thereby abandoning the core principle, however improbable, that had guided inter-Korean relations for decades.

North Korean government agencies responsible for promoting inter-Korean cooperation were scrapped, while the Arch of Reunification – a symbol of Korean unity – reportedly disappeared from the location near Pyongyang where it had stood for more than two decades.

‘The danger is already far beyond the routine warnings’

Kim’s intentions have exposed divisions among North Korea experts, some of whom warn that the peninsula is edging towards armed conflict.

In an analysis published this month, former US state department official Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist with considerable North Korean expertise, concluded that Kim had “made a strategic decision to go to war”, and warned that the US and its allies would pay a heavy price for failing to heed the signs coming from Pyongyang.

The peninsula, they said in a commentary on 38 North, a website run by the Stimson Center thinktank in Washington, was closer to armed conflict than at any time since the 1950-53 Korean war.

“We do not know when or how Kim plans to pull the trigger, but the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s ‘provocations’,” they wrote.

The alternative view is less alarming – that Kim, emboldened by closer ties to Russia and continued support from China, is engaging in a familiar game of psychological warfare to coincide with the US presidential election in November and South Korean national assembly elections in April. By ramping up the pressure, he is hoping for policy shifts that are more in line with North Korean demands.

Sydney Seiler, who served at the US National Intelligence Council as national intelligence officer for North Korea until last year, said there was no evidence Kim was interested in a wider conflict that would end his regime. “I can rest pretty darn assured we’re not looking at war,” Seiler said. “North Korea just is not ready for it. It’s not postured for it.”

If, as military intelligence suggests, the North’s million-strong army is not priming its weapons, what are Kim’s intentions?

He almost certainly has his eye on the US, where Joe Biden is expected to face Donald Trump – Kim’s erstwhile partner in a doomed attempt at nuclear diplomacy – in November. A Trump administration would give the North Koreans a second chance at winning the sanctions relief and other concessions they failed to secure in Hanoi in 2019, according to Thomas Schafer, a former German ambassador to North Korea.

“This recent propaganda increase has nothing to do with a policy shift after Hanoi, but the timing is related to the coming US presidential elections,” Schaefer wrote on 38 North in response to Carlin and Heckler’s reports.

“I do not think Pyongyang believes it can influence the outcome of the US presidential elections. But it surely believes that a Republican victory … would give North Korea a second chance to further its objectives.”

Trump has denied reports that, if elected again, he would consider a deal with Kim that would allow Pyongyang to keep its nuclear weapons while offering it financial incentives to cap its deterrent capability. But a Trump White House could herald instability in Washington’s ties with its allies. During his first term, Trump considered cutting the number of American troops in South Korea.

The US and South Korean elections will give the North the opportunity to “try to tip the strategic environment in its favour with high-intensity provocations such as the launch of spy satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles or a seventh nuclear test, aimed at influencing the withdrawal of hardline North Korea policies,” South Korea’s defence minister, Shin Won-sik, said in an interview with the Yonhap news agency.

That does not mean conflict is out of the question. It could come in the form of isolated clashes near the heavily armed inter-Korean border, or as the result of a provocation that inadvertently crosses a line for Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea’s hardline president.

The most reassuring assessment comes from Thae Yong-ho, a former deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in London, who became one of the regime’s most high-profile defectors in 2016.

Thae and others have half-joked that North Korea is already prosecuting a war … in Ukraine, where, according to US intelligence, its weapons are being used by Russian forces.

“If Kim Jong-un thinks of starting a war immediately this year, it doesn’t make sense for him to send weapons to Russia right now,” Thae said in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

“Kim Jong-un is trying to scare South Korea and the US by showing off and acting as if he will do something significant … There is no need to be anxious about Kim Jong-un’s bluff or intimidation.”