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(News Focus) N. Korea ups ante to counter U.S.-led sanctions pressure amid internal hardships

All News 11:15 January 20, 2022

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 20 (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to be reverting to its typical brinkmanship with back-to-back weapons tests and an apparent threat to resume nuclear and long-range missile tests, as the United States is stepping up sanctions pressure amid Pyongyang's worsening economic woes, analysts said Thursday.

The recalcitrant North decided to weigh "restarting all temporally suspended activities" during Wednesday's key ruling party session chaired by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, its state media reported, alluding to Pyongyang's self-imposed moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear testing.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over a politburo meeting of the Workers' Party at the headquarters of the party's Central Committee in Pyongyang on Jan. 19, 2022, in this photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. Kim ordered officials to reconsider all trust-building measures with the United States, instructing them to mull resuming all activities temporarily suspended. North Korea has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing since late 2017. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

Last week, the Joe Biden administration imposed new sanctions against Pyongyang, and it is pushing for fresh U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions. A closed-door council session on the matter is slated for Thursday (New York time).

"Based on its position to respond to 'power with power and good will with good will,' Pyongyang appears to be signaling that Washington should stop incrementally raising pressure on the regime," Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.

He added, "In other words, the North is sending a strong warning to the U.S. against convening the planned UNSC session on the regime and against adopting additional standalone and UNSC sanctions."

The North's talk of rethinking "trust-building" measures with the U.S. came against the backdrop of what is widely viewed as a shift by Washington to sanctions from its earlier engagement formula marked by its oft-repeated yet vaguely-worded proposals to engage in dialogue "anywhere, anytime without preconditions."

The North conducted four known rounds of missile tests over the past three weeks. It fired what it called two tactical guided missiles on Monday and two other missiles by its railway-based unit last Friday into the East Sea. The launches followed two rounds of its self-proclaimed hypersonic missile tests on Jan. 5 and 11.

A North Korean missile is fired from a railway-based platform from North Pyongan Province, a northwestern region bordering China, in this photo released Jan. 15, 2022, by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

In response, the U.S. slapped fresh sanctions on six North Koreans involved in the North's weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. For the North's ballistic missile tests since September, the U.S. is also pushing for new UNSC sanctions.

Aside from the UNSC session, U.S. President Biden is expected to use his virtual summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, set for Friday, to discuss joint efforts, including sanctions, to rein in the North's continued saber-rattling.

Sanctions are seen as a core pillar of what Pyongyang calls the U.S.' hostile policy toward it. Pyongyang has demanded the withdrawal of such a policy -- which Washington denies -- as a precondition for returning to dialogue.

The U.S.' focus on sanctions has apparently dealt a setback to North Korean leader Kim's struggle to address his country's economic travails further exacerbated by pandemic-driven restrictions.

"Other than the external motives for the show of force, there could be the need to address internal economic issues, such as nearing the threshold beyond which it cannot withstand under prolonged pandemic-driven restrictions," Park said. "To deflect attention from these issues, the North could spark tensions beyond its borders, perhaps through a showdown with the U.S."

The North's hard-line stance came as its presence seems to have dwindled in the priority diplomatic policy list of a Biden administration preoccupied with handling a more pressing geopolitical issue -- Russia's massing of around 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine in what observers say could be a pincer movement for an invasion.

Its recent missile launches appeared to have paid off to some extent in that regard, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken having mentioned the Kim regime more often in public recently.

"I think some of this is the North Korea trying to get attention," the top U.S. diplomat said in an interview with MSNBC last week, referring to the North's missile launches.

"But we are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended, and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea," he added.

An ICBM launch that could demonstrate the North's capability to deliver nuclear arms to the continental U.S. is a perfect recipe for drawing Washington's attention, particularly ahead of the U.S. mid-term elections slated for November.

A North Korean issue may not be a critical factor affecting the U.S. elections, but Biden might want to achieve some visible progress in major foreign policy tasks, observers noted.

The series of missile launches have stumped analysts who presumed Pyongyang might refrain from carrying out such a destabilizing show of force ahead of the upcoming Winter Games hosted by China, its key patron.

It is notable that North Korean cargo trains were spotted entering a Chinese border city this week in a sign of resumed business transactions, though three of the North's four weapons tests this month took place close to the border with China -- a reason why speculation swirled that Beijing might have turned a blind eye to Pyongyang's continued launches.

"The series of North Korean missile tests came as speculation has started to surface that there is a possibility that a ratcheting-up of tension on the Korean Peninsula could undermine the U.S. military focus particularly on the Taiwan issue critical for China," Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University, said.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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