North Korea’s Next Move Following the Olympics

Intelligence

U.S. 8th Army Photo

The Olympic torch has been extinguished. The games are over, and athletes are returning home. The brief U.S.-North Korea detente is also likely over.

We had plenty to talk about during the games. First there was Kim Jong-Il’s sister, who CNN told us was “stealing the show,” and that she was “not only a powerful member of Kim Jong Un’s kitchen cabinet but also a foil to the perception of North Korea as antiquated and militaristic.” But they failed to mention that as the  deputy director of the “Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Worker’s Party of Korea,” that’s pretty much her job.

North Korean Talks. Maybe.

Kim’s ability to drive the news cycle was in full display not only from her “side-eye,” but the way the North offered to have Kim meet with Pence following the ceremony, only to cancel the meeting two hours prior to start time. The cancellation gave the DPRK’s propaganda team the opportunity to blame the cancellation on Pence’s strong language.

Now, with the games over, the North has held out its hand again, signaling through Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in a willingness to meet with the United States. This comes across as more than a little disingenuous after the way they backed out of what would have been the highest-level talks between the two countries in almost 20 years.

It is especially disingenuous given the way they have ramped-up their rhetoric once again, calling the new sanctions that President Trump announced Friday as “an act of war.” Those sanctions, aimed at 28 ships that have been smuggling petroleum products into North Korea, are a reasoned and restrained response to repeated violations of the sanctions the United Nations Security Council (not the United States) unanimously imposed in December. But in the DPRK’s depraved view, they’re akin to a naval blockade.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Is a nuclear test in the making?

I have a prediction, based mainly on past behavior. I believe rather than actually holding these talks, we will see the North cancel them again, claiming U.S. aggression, and follow that up with either another missile test or another nuclear weapon test.

Six weeks ago, the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies observed that there had been a flurry of apparent tunneling activity at the DPRK’s Punggye-ri test site.  Furthermore, the DPRK has a proven habit of conducting these tests after major events like the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian coalition exercises between the U.S. and ROK. They did so in 2006, 2016, and 2017.

With so many observers thankful that Kim’s saboteurs didn’t blow up a Korean airliner prior to the Olympics like they did in 1987, he’s likely to bring back the brinksmanship with a grand display of his nuclear prowess within the next week or two. It would have been foolish for the North to conduct a test prior to or during the Olympics. But now that the spotlight is no longer on the peninsula, and having had his propaganda offensive eventually tuned back, there is nothing stopping Kim from reigniting (literally) his nuclear program.

This is why, at every turn, the U.S. government continues to insist that any talks ultimately have as their goal the complete denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. There’s no reason to back off that stance now.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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