In its 2019 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor noted that North Korea's self-imposed, year-end deadline for the United States to compromise in talks raised the likelihood of two separate scenarios: a breakthrough toward an interim deal, or a return to escalation as in 2017. North Korea's first medium-range test since 2017 is Pyongyang's way of raising the stakes going into working-level talks.
With U.S.-North Korea working-level talks finally in the books, Pyongyang is pushing the envelope even further with its missile testing — sending a stronger message to Washington that progress in talks is critical to avoid a return to escalation. The twinning of the new threshold in missile testing with movement on working-level talks confirms that North Korea is sharpening the U.S. choice between breakthrough and breakdown, making clear that it is serious about its self-declared end-of-2019 deadline for progress in negotiations.
Tests and Talks
On Oct. 2, North Korea conducted its 11th weapons test of 2019. This time around set a new benchmark since it was Pyongyang's first ballistic missile test beyond the short range since 2017 — one that moreover reportedly showcased submarine-launch capabilities that would make it harder to track before launch. The test involved a missile that appears to have been a Pukguksong-type submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew 450 kilometers (about 280 miles) with an apogee of 910 kilometers.
Kim's potential visit to China around the Oct. 6 anniversary of Chinese-North Korean bilateral relations indicates Pyongyang may be preparing to make key decisions in the U.S. negotiations.
The missile test came shortly after North Korea announced planned working-level talks on Oct. 5 with U.S. negotiators — the first substantive sit-down since the February breakdown at the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Long-delayed from the July timeline promised at the later Trump-Kim DMZ summit, the start of these talks coincides with fresh leaks out of Washington that the White House may propose an interim "freeze" deal to North Korea involving a 36-month suspension of U.N. coal and textile sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and the halting of uranium enrichment. Kim's potential visit to China around the Oct. 6 anniversary of Chinese-North Korean bilateral relations indicates Pyongyang may be preparing to make key decisions in the U.S. negotiations given that it often communicates with China around such junctures.
Breakdown vs. Breakthrough
Were North Korea to push its tests into the intercontinental range, it would signal a breakdown in talks. North Korea is keeping its tests within the confines of the pledges it made to Trump, avoiding tipping the scale toward a rupture.
For a breakthrough in talks, each side would have to be willing to accept an imperfect deal that would initiate a period of trust-building and step-by-step progress. For North Korea, such an agreement would serve as insurance against the chance that it could be negotiating with someone different after next year's U.S. presidential election. For Trump, such an agreement would represent a political victory he could showcase amid broader challenges at home and abroad.
But North Korea has long signaled it will require something more than sanctions relief to make moves on its nuclear program, meaning Washington would need to offer some sort of security guarantee for the breakthrough scenario to unfold. At the same time, the White House would need to be cautious to avoid striking a deal it cannot fully deliver, which would risk a long-term deterioration in any gains in North Korean relations, as well as political criticism at home of the Trump administration. And no matter what scenario unfolds, North Korea is unlikely to ever sacrifice its hard-won nuclear deterrent, making any deal problematic from the outset.