North Korea said on Sunday it has detained another U.S. citizen on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the state, which would make him the fourth American to be held by the isolated country amid heightened diplomatic tensions with Washington. Kim Hak Song, who worked for the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, was detained on Saturday, the North’s KCNA news agency said. “A relevant institution of the DPRK detained American citizen Kim Hak Song on May 6 under a law of the DPRK on suspension of his hostile acts against it”, KCNA said. DPRK is short for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name. A third U.S. citizen, Kim Sang Dok, who was associated with the same school, was detained in late April for hostile acts, according to the North’s official media.
North Korea on Friday accused the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and South Korea’s intelligence service of a plot to attack its “supreme leadership” with a bio-chemical weapon and said such a “pipe-dream” could never succeed. Tension on the Korean peninsula has been high for weeks, driven by concern that North Korea might conduct its sixth nuclear test or test-launch another ballistic missile in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The tone escalation in Northeast Asia is alarming the chancelleries of the region and beyond. The fragile equilibrium on which the peace lies in the Korean peninsula is put to the test on both sides. Trump threatened to send a naval “armada”, putting Pyongyang under pressure during the celebrations for the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, founder of the country. Kim Jong-Un, on the opposite side, renewed its threats to the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies, claiming to be ready to use all of its offensive potential in the event of a conflict. The North Korean nuclear dossier, therefore, is again on the top of the agenda, raising the alarm level of the international community.
The nuclear project is for Pyongyang absolutely strategic in terms of detriment of external threats and for this purpose it funds the program with $ 700 million annually, to advance on the technological ground and equip medium- and long-range ballistic vectors on which, one day, install atomic warheads. The six nuclear tests so far conducted and the progressive technical improvements have allowed the regime to strengthen its position in the chain of regional relations and in the confrontation with the great American enemy, with whom, it should be remembered, a peace treaty was never signed after the end of the Korean War in 1951.
It is not possible to verify Pyongyang’s proclamations and no one knows for sure when Kim will be able to rely on the hydrogen bomb or on a ballistic missile capable of reaching the American West Coast. This uncertainty, however, plays in favor of the regime, which shows the muscles without the enemy being able to understand with certainty whether they are made of flesh or fake.
Nuclear rhetoric is an important instrument of control and affirmation also on the domestic front, as it allows Kim to consolidate its authority both in the eyes of the population and the bureaucratic-military establishment that plays a central role in the country. When he succeeded his father in 2011, Kim was almost unknown at home. Therefore, he immediately had to exacerbate his rhetoric to build the image of an authoritative and determined leader, relying on the powerful propaganda machine and the systematic cleanup of internal opponents. Paradigmatic example was the physical elimination of Jang Song-taek, uncle of the young leader who had climbed the military hierarchies during the reign of Kim Jong-il and who, in the first months after the succession, played the role of de facto regent of the Regime.
Jang had also become the principal referent of Beijing, the main, if not unique, North Korean ally. And, on the Chinese model, Jang wanted to bring Pyongyang on the road to economic reforms and greater openness . Jang’s specific weight in the power system and his plan to transform the country, moving away from the dynastic and personalistic model in favor of a more collegial conception inspired by the Beijing example, have been probably the origin of its end. Progressively marginalized by the new leader after 2011, he was arrested in 2013 and killed along with other members of his circle.
This demonstration of strength, while serving as an example to other possible internal opponents, marked the beginning of a new phase of isolation of the country from the rest of the international community. Subsequent nuclear tests and the aggressive rhetoric of Kim have provoked a strong exasperation towards the Pyongyang regime, even in the Chinese ally, traditionally available for patience. After Jang’s execution, Beijing lost its reference man and no longer found trusted interlocutors north of the 38th parallel, losing part of his role as protector and regime controller.
If for a long time North Korea has been a pressure instrument on the international community and a buffered state between Beijing and the Asian allies of the United States, it is now likely to be a risk factor for Chinese interests in the region. North Korean intimidations has had the effect of releasing the arming race in neighboring countries, thus altering the traditional balance in the Pacific and putting Beijing in a situation of unprecedented difficulty. Pyongyang’s defense may therefore be counterproductive for China, which could ultimately opt for pragmatic convergence with the United States, South Korea and Japan.
In 2016, for the first time, China joined the sanctions system against the North Korean government, marking a major breakthrough. Beijing is in fact the first trading partner for Pyongyang and hosts a large number of bank accounts, companies and firms that manage the regime’s legal and illegal activities. In 2017 coal imports from North Korea will drop by about 50%, with estimated economic damage of about $ 700 million, equal to the entire budget for the nuclear research program.
This change of route does not, however, result in a Chinese flattening on American positions. Beijing did not appreciate at all the explicit threats put forth by Trump against North Korea and, at the March bilateral summit in Florida, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated the need to find a diplomatic solution and avoid a dangerous escalation in the region. Beijing could not afford to remain a passive spectator in the face of any US military action that would have a direct impact on its national security.
The economic and commercial leverage could allow China to re-enforce its influence on the North Korean military and bureaucratic elites, who base their prosperity on the ability to do business with the powerful neighbor. However, it will be necessary to locate new contact persons in Pyongyang so that it can return to influence the regime’s policy and best manage, in the event of a fall of current leadership, the transition phase. A recaptured influence would also allow China to get a new exchange currency in the relationship with Trump administration, in a delicate historical stage for the relations between the two global giants.
The need to limit the unpredictability of Kim Jong-Un’s regime could be the common ground on which to redefine the boundaries of the relationship between China and the United States. A more assertive role of Beijing towards the regime could therefore be the result of an agreement between the two sides of the Pacific, with a possible marginalization of the role played by Japan and South Korea in determining a new strategy.
Tokyo and Seoul would be on the front line in a possible armed conflict with Pyongyang. If, however, Japan appears ready to support the Trump administration’s muscular approach, Seoul continues to push for the search of peaceful and diplomatic solutions. In the midst of a political crisis that led to the resignation of former President Park, South Korea is likely to find itself without a strong government when crucial decisions are taken, with direct consequences on its national security.
North Korea reiterated its vow to launch “full-out war” with nuclear weapons on Saturday as an American naval strike carrier was set to arrive off the tense Korean peninsula in a matter of days. Tensions between the United States and the North have soared in recent weeks as a series of North Korean missile tests have wrought ever-more bellicose warnings from President Donald Trump’s administration about curtailing its nuclear weapons programme.
As North Korea gears up to celebrate its biggest national day so far, the ‘Day of the Sun’ when it will mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founding president, Kim Il Sung on Saturday – tensions in the region are at an all-time high. On April 25, it will also mark the 85th anniversary of the creation of the Korean People’s Army. In 2012, North Korea had tried to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date, but failed. Then, last year, Pyongyang tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile. Since the start of 2016, the reclusive nation has been intensifying its nuclear capabilities and has tested several ballistic missiles.
North Korean state media warned on Tuesday of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of American aggression as a U.S. Navy strike group steamed toward the western Pacific. U.S. President Donald Trump, who has urged China to do more to rein in its impoverished ally and neighbor, said in a Tweet that North Korea was “looking for trouble” and the United States would “solve the problem” with or without Beijing’s help. Tension has escalated sharply on the Korean peninsula amid concerns that reclusive North Korea may soon conduct a sixth nuclear test and after Washington said at the weekend it was diverting the aircraft carrier strike group Carl Vinson toward the Korean peninsula in a show of force.
The USS Carl Vinson-led aircraft carrier strike group has been sent to waters in the Western Pacific near the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command and media reports said Sunday ahead of the anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris directed the Carl Vinson strike group to sail north and report to the waters after departing Singapore on Saturday. Media reports quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying the move was in response to recent North Korean provocations.
A few hours before the summit between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese equivalent Xi Jinping, in Florida, the North Korean leader has ordered the launch of a KN-15 medium-range which missile which concluded its trajectory in the Sea of Japan waters, after a short flight of about 60 kilometers.
South Korea strongly condemned the new provocation of Pyongyang, and the US Defense Secretary, Rex Tillerson, coldly addressed the episode: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” The most decisive response came instead from Tokyo, speaking through Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga: “Japan can never tolerate North Korea’s repeated provocative actions. The government strictly protested and strongly condemned it. “
After five nuclear tests, two of which were conducted in 2016, today’s launch has renewed fears of the international community on the North Korean missile program. Pyongynag is still far from the objective of realizing a long-range warhead that can deliver a nuclear weapon on American soil , but analysts have speculated that the KN-15 missile was propelled by a solid propellant, easy to handle and transport, which would increase the striking capacity of the Asian regime.
The show of force occurs in the aftermath of two events that Pyongyang interpreted as serious threats. In recent days, Trump launched its warning: if China decides not to cooperate in containing the inconvenient regional ally, the US is ready to act alone against the enemy. At the same time, a joint military drill between the US, Japan and South Korea, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for a possible invasion, just came to an end.
According to a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry, the actions of enemy powers are bringing the Asian Peninsula on “brink of war”.
The current crisis, which undoubtedly will be the focus of talks between Trump and Jinping, was preceded, in February, by the launch of four ballistic missiles by North Koreans who have fallen close to the Japanese coast, and from an SLBM ( Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile) launch system test that would allow Pyongyang to bring its warheads into enemy waters and have an unprecedented second-strike capability, in case of destruction of its terrestrial arsenal. However, this hypothesis, according to analysts, is currently only theoretical and years will occour before Kim Jong Un will be able to rely on such an offensive capability.
In an increasingly overheated scenario, the Chinese government try to throw water on the fire. On the eve of Jinping and Trump summit, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, owned by the US president, a spokesman for the Beijing Foreign Ministry has denied any link between the North Korean missile launch and the meeting between the two powers, urging all actors involved to avoid any further escalation.
China, at this moment, seems to be the only force able to put a stop to the conflict between Pyongyang and its many enemies.
North Korea launched a missile from its east coast Wednesday but it appeared to have exploded in mid-air shortly after liftoff, according to officials in South Korea and the United States. The launch attempt came as South Korea and the U.S. are conducting the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises mobilizing a set of U.S. strategic assets including the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Carl Vinson and the nuclear-powered submarine USS Columbus as well as B-1B strategic bombers. “North Korea launched one missile from an area near an air base in Wonsan this morning, but it is presumed to have failed”, the Ministry of National Defense said, adding that it was “not fired normally”.
The warm words from Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ended his first trip to Asia since taking office with an agreement to work together with China on North Korea and putting aside trickier issues. China has been irritated at being repeatedly told by Washington to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the US decision to base an advanced missile defence system in South Korea.