Seoul: Dealing with a notorious murder by detonating a huge diplomatic row, and firing missiles as a practice assault on US bases in Japan — North Korea’s recent actions demonstrate its willingness to escalate tensions whatever the consequences, say analysts.
Pyongyang on Tuesday banned all Malaysian citizens from leaving North Korea, its latest move in an increasingly heated feud over the assassination of leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian police are investigating the death of Kim Jong-Nam, who was killed last month by two women using VX nerve agent, but all fingers have pointed to Pyongyang as the culprit behind the murder.
The North has denied any involvement, denouncing the Malaysian probe as a “smear campaign” to tarnish the country, before the two engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions of their ambassadors.
Daniel Pinkston, an analyst at Troy University in Seoul, said the North’s belligerent response followed its textbook method of using force to handle political disputes. “There is a famous quote in their literature: if someone brings a pistol, bring a cannon. That’s how they operate,” he said.
The travel ban on Malaysians came on the same day that Pyongyang described the launch of four missiles — three of which came down in waters that are part of Japan’s exclusive economic zone — as a practice drill for a strike on US military bases in the country.
The direct challenge to Washington comes with a new, famously unpredictable president in the White House who is still formulating his approach to North Korea.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump at times implied that negotiations could be an option, but in phone calls Tuesday reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to allies Japan and South Korea and warned of “very dire consequences” for Pyongyang.
“It would seem common sense to behave well before Trump sets his policy, but North Korea is just going its own way regardless of the consequences,” said Koh Yu-Hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University.
“Trump talks of achieving peace through strength and the North seems to be applying the same logic, although it can’t compete in terms of strength,” Koh added.
Being blamed for Kim’s killing — Malaysian authorities are still seeking to question seven North Koreans over it — could mean tougher international sanctions, including being put back on Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Analysts say the feud with Kuala Lumpur is a calculated move before Malaysia announces the final results of its probe. “This is obviously destroying bilateral relations with Malaysia but I think at the end of the day, that falls fairly low on North Korea’s list of priorities,” said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University.
In any case, he added: “Once Malaysia comes to a conclusion and they deny it, they are at loggerheads and having a public fight about it.” The quadruple missile launch came shortly after South Korea and the US started annual joint exercises that always infuriate Pyongyang, which sees them as practice for invasion and regularly mounts protest actions — with seven missile launches last year.
But the explicit targeting of Japan — only the second time a North Korean missile has landed in its EEZ — represented an escalation. It drew strong global condemnation with the UN Security Council scrambling to discuss additional measures against the North.
Kim Kwang-Jin, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said: “It’s probably all based on a calculation that they can’t hope for any concession or change from the Trump administration.
“Compared to his father Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un is much more aggressive in dealing with a new US administration. It’s under tougher sanctions but ignoring all of them.”
But some analysts warn the North’s strategy could go horribly wrong. Trump could take a much more “hardline” stance than the Obama administration, potentially reintroducing nuclear weapons to the South, said Choi Kang, an analyst at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“Obama couldn’t openly talk about bringing in tactical nuclear weapons because of his pledge for a nuclear-free world but Trump will be uncompromising,” he told AFP. “After all, he called Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ a failed policy.”