Trump's bluster doing nothing to neutralize North Korea's nuclear ambitions

On the issue of North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons, Pyongyang doesn't plan to back down – and Washington seems to have no plan at all, writes Saša Petricic.

North Korea doesn't plan to back down – and U.S. seems to have no plan at all

The North Korean military flaunted its weaponry during recent celebrations of the birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

The skyline of Pyongyang was shrouded in haze last week as the 105th birth anniversary of founding father Kim Il-sung dawned. There was nothing but quiet outside my hotel window.

But while the noise from the previous day's huge military parade had faded, the news from the military had not. Moments before, a couple of hundred kilometres east, North Korea had tested another missile from its submarine base at Sinpo.

Like the fireworks celebrating the country's most important holiday the night before, the missile had exploded not far off the ground. Unlike the fireworks, though, the average North Korean had no idea it had happened.

That's because the timing had been meant to send a message to another audience: the United States and the rest of the world.

Washington declared the test a failure, with one official saying, "it fizzled." The New York Times called it an "embarrassment" for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

After dozens of missile tests and five underground nuclear explosions, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to be getting the attention and respect he has always craved. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

In fact, the test succeeded in one very important way.

The bang was big enough that the signal was clear: Pyongyang intends to keep pursuing its missile and nuclear weapons program, in defiance of the U.S., the UN and even China, its only ally.

'Nuclear strike warfare'

Indeed, it may have been the best result possible for North Korea. Any test bigger or more powerful might have forced the United States to act. No test at all might have led Washington to believe Pyongyang was having second thoughts.

The day before, North Korea made a show of what it claims are advances in its rocket technology. It displayed what seemed like several missiles that had never been seen before: the Pukguksong-1, a submarine-based medium-range weapon, and the canisters of what could be new intercontinental ballistic missiles.

During a recent military parade, North Korea displayed the Pukguksong-1 missile, a submarine-based medium-range weapon. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

"If the United States wages reckless provocation against us," said one of the country's most influential politicians, Choe Ryong Hae, "our revolutionary power will instantly counter with annihilating strike, and we will respond to full-out war with full-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare."

On the balcony overlooking the missiles, Kim Jong-un listened and clapped. He is expanding his reach, and the world is reacting.

After dozens of missile tests and five underground nuclear explosions, he feels he is getting the attention and respect he has always craved.

The United States, on the other hand, seems unsure what to do.

All options 'on the table'

Days before, with great fanfare, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that a U.S. naval strike force, including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, was headed for the Korean peninsula.

On Sunday, North Korea warned it was ready to sink the carrier to demonstrate its military might, as two Japanese navy ships joined the U.S. group for exercises in the western Pacific.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called for China, under President Xi Jinping, right, to do more to dissuade North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Even as North Korea was testing the missile a week before, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence was telling a nervous South Korea that "all options are on the table," including a preemptive military strike. The ships were there to give the U.S. military options.

It turns out the ships were sailing away from North Korea and would not reach the area until some time this week at the earliest.

The U.S.'s options are getting more and more limited.

Along with the United Nations, it has imposed tough economic sanctions to pressure Kim Jong-un into abandoning his weapons program. They have not worked.

There are too many loopholes left by North Korea's only real remaining trading partner, China, despite promises from Beijing that it would tighten them. Pyongyang continues to trade through a shadowy network of shell companies in China.

And on Friday, four North Korean ships were reportedly allowed to dock at a Chinese port that handles coal — after a vow from Beijing that it would ban purchases of coal from North Korea.

That commodity and its Chinese customers are the main source of foreign income for Pyongyang.

New approach needed

Trump has put more and more pressure on China to act, but it's not clear that Beijing is willing or able to bring North Korea to heel.

During my trip to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un cut the ribbon on a big new high-rise development, which he proudly presented as proof that North Korea can evade sanctions with ease.

A view of the Pyongyang skyline. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

Negotiations have also gotten nowhere. On a visit to Japan last month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared, "The diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed." A new approach would be needed.

Many signals sent by Washington point to a military attack, but that, too, is complicated.

North Korea's missiles are hidden underground, in tunnels spread across the country. They can be prepared and launched within a few minutes.

If the U.S. did attack, it would be nearly impossible to hit all of these at once. If even a few were left, missiles could be fired at South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in the region. Experts say North Korea likely already has the capability to hit such targets, though probably not with nuclear weapons.

But Pyongyang's first move would almost certainly be to aim at Seoul, which it could hit easily with conventional weapons at any time. The South Korean capital is less than 50 kilometres from the border, and has a vulnerable population of more than 10 million people.

The synchronized marching of soldiers is a key part of any military parade in North Korea. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

"I think this is one of the most serious crises facing the world today," said John McCallum, Canada's new ambassador to China, in an interview with CBC this week in Beijing.

But there doesn't seem to be any international efforts, including from Canada, to resolve the standoff peacefully.

At the moment, the U.S. has rejected any negotiations. Even if there were any, Kim Jong-un has indicated his determination to become the world's newest nuclear power very soon.

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic