Back to his old business: Kim Jong Un starts nuclear sabre rattling

Satellite imagery shows that Pyongyang may have kick-started a nuclear weapons plant. It could be Kim Jong’s attempt to exert pressure on US President Joe Biden to lift sanctions, which are hurting the nation bad. But will it work?

Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo-Jong, North Korea, health problems, train, satellite images
Kim Jong Un is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea | Wiki

Only last October, on the 75th anniversary of the Workers Party, North Korea’s strongman Kim Jong Un appeared to shed tears in public, apologizing that perhaps he had not done enough to solve the “difficulties” of his people. But on that important occasion, not many missed the irony: North Korea put on a massive display of weaponry including some new ones, precisely the gadgets that were preventing people from having what they need most—food and a better way of life.

As a leader of one of the most sanctioned nations in the world, Kim Jong Un joins his father Kim Jong Il and his grandfather Kim Il Sung in staying with a policy that has ruined North Korea, leaving it standing alone in the comity of nations, at best in the company of one or two like-minded regimes.

Recent satellite imagery shows that Pyongyang may have kick-started a nuclear weapons plant in the vicinity of the Yongbyon complex, considered dormant for about two years. Experts maintain that a coal fired steam plant has been spewing smoke since February, suggesting that preparations are on to extract plutonium required for making nuclear weapons. The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency too has warned that some nuclear facilities in North Korea continue to operate. But the 38 North website that posted satellite images is also saying that the particular facility may also be “prepared to handle radioactive waste”.

“The DPRK’s ( Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea) nuclear activities remain a cause for serious concern. The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” said IAEA’s Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. North Korea’s nuclear program has always been highly secretive, but it is generally believed to have the capability to produce nuclear weapons from both plutonium and uranium. The size of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal also varies between 20 and 60. The United States’ Central Intelligence Agency along with its counterparts in South Korea and Japan keep a close watch on developments in North Korea but rarely publicly comment on matters of deep intelligence.


The first temptation with the knowledgeable is to look at the fresh goings on at Yongbyon as an indication on the part of Kim Jong Un to pressure the Biden administration on the sanctions front, which is really hurting Pyongyang. Besides the US punitive measures, North Korea faces similar curbs from Europe and the United Nations.

China is the only nation that does have anything to do with the reclusive regime, but even that has been scaled down considerably in the face of stepped up international moves; and China’s shutting down of its borders in the wake of the COVID pandemic has really made matters worse. Of course, Chairman Kim would want the world to believe that his country does not even have a single case of the dreaded virus! If that were the case then where is the need for Pyongyang to hack into the data bases of pharmaceutical companies involved in vaccine development as some intelligence agencies maintain?

The nuclear sabre rattling by Chairman Kim as a way of forcing the new Biden administration into re-starting the stalled talks is unlikely to work for many reasons. Barely 50 days into his job, President Joseph Biden is not the kind of person to rush into an area that is filled with political, diplomatic and strategic minefields. Biden is quite aware of the fact that this impasse with North Korea did not start with his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump; rather it gets into the administrations of Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton. And whatever cushion that was provided from time to time was taken away in the perception that Pyongyang was not fully living up to its part of the bargain. In fact, President Trump, who took the bold decision to meet with a North Korean leader, not once but thrice in Singapore, Vietnam and Panmunjom, could not take the issue forward when he realized that North Korea’ s thinking of de-nuclearisation was not comprehensive as Washington demanded, but only partial.

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At the same time, President Biden should realize that diplomacy and negotiation are not a one way street — as a former Vice President under President Obama and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he ought to know this better. Comprehensive de-nuclearisation of North Korea can come about only in stages. For this to happen, Washington should also show good faith in slowly dismantling sanctions especially as it pertains to food and other essentials that is hurting the common people in that economically ravaged country.

From a strategic perspective, Washington should pay attention to what Pyongyang is saying when it is talking about the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

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The added onus of any forward movement is on Chairman Kim, in his first realizing that threats against the United States of unleashing long range nuclear weapons capable of reaching the American mainland,  frequently firing missiles into the Sea of Japan, challenging Japanese navy and threatening South Korea are simply not going to work. If anything it would only harden the position of nations that are in a position to help Pyongyang. Most importantly, Chairman Kim ought to keep in mind one thing: Biden is not Trump. The current occupant of the White House is unlikely to exchange “love letters” or give a ride home on Air Force One, as the former President had reportedly offered Chairman Kim from Hanoi to Pyongyang!

(The author is a former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations. He is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai)

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