T he US standoff with North Korea over its nuclear programme has been described as the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion. Whereas Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba posed an immediate threat that required a quick and decisive response, North Korea remains unable to launch a direct nuclear attack against the US with its current arsenal, allowing the US to continue its slow-burning strategy of “strategic patience” despite a recent spike in tensions.
Pyongyang’s latest missile test, however, indicates that North Korea is making significant progress towards obtaining a nuclear weapon able to strike the US mainland. State media claimed that the Hwasong-12, successfully tested last Sunday, was a new type of ballistic missile, one which can carry a heavy nuclear warhead. The rocket travelled less than 800 kilometres during the trial, but independent experts predict that when fired at a flatter trajectory it may be able to reach distances of up to 4,500 km, putting US bases on Guam within its reach.
Both sides have set strict conditions on resuming negotiations. “The United States, our allies and partners would want to see a freeze on missile and nuclear testing before returning to talks,” Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington DC, told The World Weekly. “The North Koreans would likely want some sanction relief and some assurances that regime change is not on the table.”
For the moment, the US looks set to double down on its economic siege of the rogue state. The strategy seems to be having an effect, as North Korea this week complained to the US Congress about the sanctions it had imposed, and pleaded with other countries to ignore UN penalties.
Some observers believe that despite what North Korea says, the sanctions are key to forcing North Korea to the negotiating table. “Ninety percent of the DPRK's [North Korea’s] trade is with China, so clearly there is a lot more leverage that China has, and that we would like China to use,” US Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood told reporters on Tuesday.
In the US, many are critical of China’s failure to put sufficient pressure on its neighbour: while it has rebuked Kim Jong-un's actions in recent weeks, Pyongyang was still invited to the One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing at the weekend.