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North Korean Missile Testing Could Be Prelude to High-Stakes Bargaining

© AP Photo / Lee Jin-manA TV screen showing a news program reporting on North Korea's missile launch with file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
A TV screen showing a news program reporting on North Korea's missile launch with file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 4, 2022. - Sputnik International, 1920, 10.10.2022
MOSCOW, (Sputnik) - North Korea’s recent flurry of ballistic missile tests, while widely perceived as a setback for peace process on the Korean Peninsula, may serve as an opening salvo in high-stakes negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, experts told Sputnik.
North Korea’s state media reported on Monday that the tests were designed to game out strikes at US and South Korean targets with mock tactical nuclear warheads. It also admitted that the missile that flew over Japan on October 4 was a new type of ground-to-ground intermediate-range ballistic missile meant to send a powerful warning signal to the enemies.
The Pentagon assessed on October 6 that North Korea was preparing for a real nuclear test. It last tested a nuclear bomb at the Punggye-ri site in 2017. Tunnels leading into the underground facility were blown up in the presence of foreign media during US-North Korean peace talks held under President Donald Trump in 2018, but experts suggest they can be dug up again.
Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation, told Sputnik that the recent barrage of missile launches could be an attempt by North Korea to put itself in a position of strength before it sought concessions from the United States.
"At the moment it is almost impossible to talk about a political settlement, although demonstration of capability can be a prelude to contacts (an attempt to negotiate from a stronger position)," Sokov said, adding that a political deal of any kind was still a long way off.
North Korea insisted that the missile drills were a test of its "war deterrent and nuclear counterattack capability" held in response to continued joint military exercises by the United States, South Korea and Japan.
The North has repeatedly criticized the US-South Korean navy drills off its coast as a preparation for an invasion, while the US and its allies insist they are defensive in nature. Japan and South Korea have also announced plans to build up their militaries and enhance defense cooperation with the US.
A nuclear test could further raise the stakes in one of the world's most volatile regions. David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, predicted that the North could conduct one any time in the future. He also said satellite imagery suggested that the Punggye-ri test site was being refurbished.
"I would refrain from predicting when, as it relies entirely on when they finish refurbishing the site… and on whatever schedule they are operating on. Recent activity only shows that they intend to test again, but at a time of their choosing once the work there is complete," he said.
The expert predicted that a peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula was likely off the table in the near future precisely because of Pyongyang’s WMD program.
"The North has no intention or reason to denuclearize, and with that being an unchangeable position at the moment, the best we can hope for is a cessation in missile and nuclear testing. How we get to that point would involve political concessions on the US and allied side which is also generally seen as non-negotiable," Schmerler said.
North Korea declared itself a nuclear-armed state in early September. Its history of successful nuclear tests makes another one a clear possibility, although the shroud of secrecy around the nuclear weapons program makes the timing a tough guess, Dr. M. V. Ramana, the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, said.
"All countries with nuclear weapons tend to be secretive. But North Korea is even harder to decipher than others, with the possible exception of Israel, which is in a league of its own when it comes to nuclear secrecy. So I will not speculate on the reasons for North Korea’s actions. It is clear, though, that these will result in a setback to the peace process on the Korean peninsula," he said.
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