Despite a visible and encouraging thaw in relations between North Korea and South Korea, Pyongyang appears to be readying a move that could torpedo upcoming talks with the US and bring about an all-out war.
The move in question isn’t a missile launch, which has often stoked tensions, but a satellite launch — and it demonstrates how fraught talks between the US and North Korea have become.
The US and North Korea have previously entered into talks with the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization, but more often than not, North Korea blows up a deal by launching a satellite vehicle.
While past agreements between North Korea and the US have prohibited missile testing, negotiators in Pyongyang have cleverly exploited the fact that they don’t touch on space programs.
Because launching a satellite into orbit requires much of the same technology that North Korea uses to launch a ballistic missile, the US has abandoned multiple rounds of talks with North Korea after satellite launches.
Now, as North Korea prepares to meet face-to-face with a sitting US president for the first time, experts have assessed that Pyongyang may be working on another satellite launch.
“Pyongyang and Washington’s position on their satellite launches are radically different, and thus a crisis may arise once again, and one cannot say it will not end up with a war,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, told NK News, a website for expert analysis and commentary on North Korea.
Cheong said North Korea would most likely launch a satellite “somewhere around the celebrations surrounding their 70th anniversary on September 9.” He said the US would be likely to respond with sanctions, and “then North Korea may respond with an even stronger nuclear test.”
Cheong referred to North Korea’s repeated threat to launch a missile over the Pacific and detonate its strongest-ever nuclear warhead in the air.
Cheong said that, overall, the chance of war was low because of a lack of international support — but if North Korea were to cause an atomic explosion to black out and radiate a large swath of the Pacific, it may galvanize the US and the world.
President Donald Trump’s incoming national security adviser, John Bolton, is a noted hawk on the North Korea issue and has all but dismissed the talks before they can even begin.
Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Trump couldn’t have properly prepared for a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that it could end in disaster.
“Usually, you want the summit to come at the end, after you’ve had a year of negotiations,” Cha said.
Instead, with almost no diplomatic or official contact with North Korea, Trump unilaterally agreed to the meeting, something that has already boosted Kim’s profile.
Cha said the worst-case scenario for the talks would be for the US and North Korea to “walk out of this thing angry at each other, with deflated expectations — and then there’s no place left to go, there’s no more diplomacy, because you’ve used your biggest card right up front.”
Bolton “would have a very big role in organizing and orchestrating what would be discussed,” Cha said, adding that Bolton would most likely “allow this summit to take place but really be focused on not taking the pressure off in terms of sanctions.”
Cha knows the Trump administration’s North Korea policy well, as he spent almost a year interviewing to become the US’s ambassador to South Korea. But he says he was passed up when he refused to endorse military strikes on North Korea.
Bolton, on the other hand, consistently makes the case for bombing North Korea.
With Washington unprepared yet determined to go hard on North Korea, and Pyongyang apparently planning a provocative launch, there’s a real possibility the talks could backfire and bring about a war.