After a heated exchangeearlier this month between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in which each threatened the other’s country with nuclear annihilation, an eerie quiet has set over the Korean Peninsula.
It has been 27 days since North Korea’s latest missile launch and 14 days since a US B-1 bomber flew above the peninsula.
As much as the US condemns North Korea’s missile tests, North Korea hates the frequent bomber flights from the US.
The US led the UN to impose sweeping sanctions against North Korea, and it then sanctioned secondary banks in China and Russia that do business with Pyongyang.
North Korea has in the past responded violently to such measures, but not this time.
But the US has de-escalated as well. The US military reversed the trend of increasing the size of its military exercises with South Korea each year when it announced a scaled-back version of this year’s Ulchi-Freedom Guardian.
North Korea offered up its typically scalding rhetoric in response to the drill, but it was only talk.
The US said its de-escalation had nothing to do with its tensions with North Korea, but the timing raises suspicions.
“I think the scale of the exercise has been deliberately toned down,” Yun Sun, an expert on North Korea at the Stimson Institute, told Business Insider, adding that she found the drill less threatening “not only in terms of the troops involved but also in terms of the military equipment.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised North Korea’s de-escalation on Tuesday, saying he was “pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint” and that continued quiet could lead to “having some dialogue” sometime in the “near future.”
“Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us,” Trump said at a rally on Tuesday. “I respect that fact very much.”
While experts on North Korea had expected more danger and a potential flashpoint between the US and Pyongyang in August, the “fire and fury” seems to have faded, and a window to make peace could be opening.
Sun said that “between September and March, there is this window of opportunity for five or six months where there won’t be any joint military exercises to interfere” with possible diplomatic engagement.
After August, all the pieces will be in place for the US and North Korea to start talking about peace, now that the US appears to have somewhat backed off the military drills.
But North Korea’s goal for decades has been to build a thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic missile. The US has assessed that North Korea’s ICBMs work more often than not, but the country lacks a hydrogen bomb, which is many times as powerful as a regular atomic bomb.
Sun said North Korea had “a pattern of surprise provocation or surprise tests” that could catch the US off guard and reveal the de-escalation as a ruse, which could lead to graver escalation down the road.
“One speculation is that North Korea’s quietness at this point is paving the way for the sixth nuclear test in September,” Sun said.
Sun said North Korea would have maximum leverage in negotiating once it achieved full, undisputed nuclear capabilities, and that it was unlikely to lay down its arms and embrace the US with its goal of world-ending nuclear might so close at hand.
As reported by Business Insider