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North Koreaâs threat to boost its military capacity to counter hostility from Washington before joint US-South Korea military drills is intended to divert attention from its economic crisis but could lead to a resumption of missile tests, according to analysts.
While there is nothing unusual about North Korean opposition to the summer exercises involving American and South Korean forces, its warning this week that Seoul and Washington faced âgreater security threatsâ comes from a position of weakness not seen since Kim Jong-un came to power a decade ago.
Battered by extreme weather, coronavirus restrictions and international sanctions imposed in response to its ballistic and nuclear missile programmes, North Korea is facing one of the worst economic crises in its 73-year history.
Kim has taken the unusual steps of apologising for the parlous state of the economy and imploring his 25 million people to prepare for challenges he likened to the âarduous marchâ of the 1990s, when as many as three million people are thought to have died during a famine.
The US and South Korea insist the drills are intended only to test their defence capabilities against a belligerent and nuclear-armed North Korea, but Pyongyang claims they are rehearsals for a US-led invasion.
That the latest condemnation of the drills came from Kim Yo-jong, Kimâs influential sister, suggests the stakes are being raised as the regime attempts to shift the focus away from its myriad domestic challenges, including food shortages and disruption to trade with China caused by anti-coronavirus restrictions.
âNorth Koreaâs amped up rhetoric against scaled down US-South Korea defence exercises appears to be more about domestic politics than signalling to Washington,â said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
âThe Kim regime is shifting blame for its struggles to restart the economy after a long, self-imposed pandemic lockdown. Pyongyang is also trying to pressure South Korean presidential candidates to express differences with US policy on sanctions and denuclearisation.â
Kim Yo-jong, who is widely considered the de facto second-in-command in North Korea, this week condemned South Korea for pushing ahead with âdangerousâ joint exercises with the US in comments carried by the official KCNA news agency.
North Korea would boost its âdeterrent of absolute capacityâ, including for âpowerful preemptive strikeâ, to counter the ever-increasing US military threat, she said in a statement that observers assumed had been approved by her brother.
âThe reality has proven that only practical deterrence, not words, can guarantee peace and security on the Korean peninsula, and that it is an imperative for us to build up power to strongly contain external threats.â
The statement was more explicit than those issued in previous years, calling on Washington to remove its 28,500 troops from South Korea, as South Korean forces and their American counterparts began preliminary training ahead of 10 days of computer-simulated drills from Monday.
Analysts said Kimâs tone, and the specific demand for a troop withdrawal, was designed to cause friction between Washington and Seoul as South Koreans prepare to elect a new president next spring to replace the liberal Moon Jae-in, who has invested considerable political capital in reaching out to his neighbour.
The regime is hoping that some of the candidates looking to succeed Moon, who can govern only for a single five-year term, will take issue with the USâs uncompromising stance on denuclearisation and sanctions relief â major obstacles to progress since talks broke down after Donald Trumpâs disastrous summit with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February 2019.
Pyongyangâs warning over the joint drills came after it agreed last month to resume cross-border hotlines after more than a year â another attempt, analysts say, to pressure South Korea into convincing Washington to make concessions on denuclearisation. On Friday, South Koreaâs Yonhap news agency said officials north of the countriesâ heavily armed border had not answered calls for a third straight day.
While the allies have scaled down their joint exercises in an attempt to encourage North Korea to join negotiations, US officials said this yearâs drills would proceed as planned.
âLet me reiterate that the joint military exercises are purely defensive in nature,â US state department spokesman Ned Price said, when asked about Kim Yo-jongâs threat.
âAs we have long maintained, the United States harbours no hostile intent towards the DPRK,â he added, using the North Koreaâs official name, the Democratic Peopleâs Republic of Korea.
âWe support inter-Korean dialogue, we support inter-Korean engagement and weâll continue to work with our South Korean partners towards that end.â
After 18 months in which North Koreaâs focus on containing the pandemic appeared to rule out any dramatic rise in tensions on the Korean peninsula, this weekâs warning could signal it is ready to return to more provocative measures, including missile tests, to demonstrate its frustration at the lack of progress with Washington.
But Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Centre for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, pointed out that little had come of previous threats by North Korea timed to coincide with US-South Korean wargames.
âThey would suddenly switch to a policy of appeasement whenever it was deemed necessary, when the drills were over,â he said.
With Agence France-Presse