No, North Korea didn’t launch an ICBM on December 25, as predicted by some observers disturbed by its recent hints about a “Christmas present” for the U.S. But we shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Pyongyang, after all, marked the culmination of its highly anticipated end-of-year deadline with a strident threat to demonstrate a new “promising strategic weapon system.”
Kim Jong-un announced that he no longer felt bound by his promise to President Trump to not conduct nuclear or ICBM tests. Instead, North Korea indicated it would “shift to a shocking actual action to make [the U.S.] pay for the [sanctions] pains sustained by our people.”
After a four-day Korea Workers’ Party plenum meeting, North Korea left the door to negotiations open the tiniest of cracks, with the “scope and depth” of its nuclear and missile deterrent contingent on a dramatically altered U.S. policy. But the regime’s demands, including an end to military exercises and weapons sales to South Korea, have been unacceptable to the United States. The regime dismissed Washington’s calls for dialogue as stalling tactics and indicated it would seize the initiative rather than waiting for the situation to improve.
Pyongyang will continue to go up the escalation ladder, either incrementally or immediately, but in a manner to maximize impact and diplomatic leverage. The regime could first conduct tests of medium- and intermediate-range missiles before an ICBM or nuclear test. Missile experts speculate whether North Korea may test a newly developed ICBM, possibly solid-fueled.
North Korea’s party plenum report underscored that U.S. and international sanctions have been “harsh and dangerous” challenges to the country’s economy. But the regime vowed never to “barter the security and dignity of the state,” depicting the situation as a “stand-off between self-reliance and sanctions.”