Hangyun Kim is a Senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs IA studies and is the Senior Advisor to Korean International Studies Organization.
In the United Nations General Assembly where members pledged to promote international co-operation, the war of words between the United States and North Korea continued to intensify. Ri Yong-ho – North Korea’s Foreign Minister – emerged as Kim Jong-un’s mouthpiece with yet another trademark bluster and hyperbolic threats.
Ri took to the podium to deliver a speech of reproach to President Trump’s earlier remarks, where Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and referred to Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man.” Ri bitterly told the General Assembly that Trump was on a “suicide mission,” leaving North Korea to consider testing “an unprecedented scale hydrogen bomb” over the Pacific Ocean.
Days after American bombers flew east of international airspace over North Korea – which North Korean authorities surprisingly did not notice – Ri called for a sudden two-minute press conference. With trembling voices, the regime’s face announced: “The whole world should clearly remember it was the US who first declared war on our country” and asserted right to shoot down American bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border. “The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then,” threatened Ri.
Ri’s fiery remarks over the past week once again alarmed the world, especially since his words came shortly after Pyongyang’s threat to bombard US mainland with its rockets. Tensions have continued to rise around the Korean peninsula, yet North Korean top diplomat’s words in hindsight exposed Pyongyang’s inability or reluctance to show anything new at the moment – including hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific, intercontinental missiles launch, or even rocket-firing around Guam.
Ri is not a part of the ‘inner circle’ either, hence his understanding of both nuclear and missile program is naturally limited. Judging from his words, it is likely that North Korea lacks both technological hardware and policymaking software to put its nuclear warheads into the fields. The very fact that the Foreign Minister – out of anyone in the Kim dynasty – bluffed about a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific hints Ri’s shallow awareness of two programs. How can North Korea place necessary equipment in the Pacific when the latest Security Council resolution calls for inspection of all North Korean ships? A week has passed since Ri’s hydrogen bomb announcement, but Pyongyang remains exceptionally silent – no words from the Workers’ Party, no mass rallies to support the hydrogen bomb test, and absolutely zero media coverage.
It seems clear that the escalation of tensions has reached an impasse. Ri’s rhetoric of ‘right to shoot down American planes’ can be translated as a desperate plea for removal of strategic assets from the Korean peninsula. Noticeably, Ri did not coerce to use nuclear weapons against its enemies, and his threats no longer target specific locations. Culminating in these interpretations, Pyongyang seems to seek a change from the current phase, yet their impatience was reflected upon Ri’s rather careless remarks, such as “the question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then.” It mirrored their most terrifying nightmare – regime collapse.
Just like everyone else in Pyongyang, Ri has never been the delegated authority. All powers of North Korea come from Kim Jong-un alone and under no circumstances, a ‘mere’ minister can act solely in an international arena without approval from the ‘Party Centre.’ While he has no access to the most sensitive information, Ri did convey Pyongyang’s anxiousness to buy some more time.
Once again there will be a long and boring stalemate between the Free World and the North, and the psychological game will play in an advantage of the patient and persistent side. Seoul’s left-wing regime should realize that its constant appeal to act as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang will ultimately play in favour of North Korea.