North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said Tuesday he would hold off on a planned missile strike near Guam, but warned the highly provocative move would go ahead in the event of further “reckless actions” by Washington.
Some analysts suggested Kim’s comments opened a possible path to de-escalating a growing crisis fuelled by a bellicose war of words between US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leadership.
Their recent exchanges were focused on a North Korean threat to fire a volley of four missiles over Japan towards the US territory of Guam, which hosts a number of strategic military bases.
The North’s official KCNA news agency said Kim was briefed on the “plan for an enveloping fire at Guam” during an inspection on Monday of the Strategic Force command in charge of the nuclear-armed state’s missile units.
But Kim said he would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” before executing any order.
If they “persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula,” then North Korea would take action “as already declared,” he was quoted as saying.
“In order to defuse the tensions and prevent the dangerous military conflict on the Korean peninsula, it is necessary for the US to make a proper option first,” he added.
– ‘De-escalating’ –
Kim’s remarks would appear to bring into play the large-scale military exercises held every year by South Korea and the United States that are expected to kick off later this month.
The North has always denounced the drills as provocative rehearsals for invasion and has in the past offered a moratorium on further nuclear and missile testing in exchange for their cancellation — a trade-off promoted by Pyongyang’s main ally China, but repeatedly rejected by Washington and Seoul.
Some analysts said Kim was seeking a similar quid-pro-quo this time around, using the Guam missile threat as leverage.
“This is a direct invitation to talk reciprocal constraints on exercises and missile launches,” said Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul said Kim was “de-escalating, putting Guam plan on ice” — at least for now.
“We are not out of the woods. Both sides need to keep taking steps to de-escalate in words and deed. Diplomacy needs to go in high gear,” he added.
The United States and South Korea insist their annual joint exercises are purely defensive in nature and cannot be linked to the North’s missile programme, which violates a host of UN resolutions.
Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said Pyongyang was using the Guam threat as “straight-up blackmail”.
– ‘Fire and fury’ –
Tensions have been mounting since the North tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month, which appeared to bring much of the US within range.
Responding to the tests, US President Donald Trump warned Pyongyang of “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, while the North responded with the plan to fire missiles close to Guam.
The standoff has sparked global alarm, with world leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping urging calm on both sides.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In weighed in on Tuesday, saying Seoul would avoid a second Korean War at all costs.
“Military action on the Korean Peninsula can only be decided by the Republic of Korea and no one may decide to take military action without the consent of the Republic of Korea,” Moon said.
But he added there could be no dialogue before the North halts its “nuclear and missile provocations”.
Moon’s comments came after US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson penned an opinion piece in the The Wall Street Journal insisting that America has “no interest” in regime change in Pyongyang.
“We do not seek an excuse to garrison US troops north of the Demilitarized Zone,” they wrote. “We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang.”
Mattis and Tillerson called on China, which is North Korea’s main trading partner and ally, to take advantage of an “unparalleled opportunity” to assert its influence on Pyongyang.
“If China wishes to play a more active role in securing regional peace and stability — from which all of us, especially China, derive such great benefit — it must make the decision to exercise its decisive diplomatic and economic leverage over North Korea,” the US officials wrote.