North Korea has been ramping up tensions with South Korea in recent weeks, but the campaign seems aimed at making a renewed push for sanctions relief by recapturing the attention of a US administration that is distracted by domestic issues. North Korea blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border last week, declared an end to dialogue with South Korea and threatened military action. President Donald Trump’s attention is fixed elsewhere, including the coronavirus epidemic, anti-racism protests and the November presidential election.
Speaking to DW News, Mr Kelly said: “The real issue is the North Koreans have offered to pull back a little bit.
“They’ve got an enormous amount of force in the south Korean capital and it looks like that will be unwound but it doesn’t really threaten south Korea security very much.
“I think the real issue in the next eight months or so is whether or not the North Koreans will launch some armed provocation against South Korea.
“They’ve done this kind of stuff for decades, they hasn’t happened in several years.
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“I think that’s the real escalatory step that people worry about.”
Analysts say one of Kim’s goals in lashing out at U.S. ally South Korea is to remind Washington of the unresolved issues with North Korea, potentially forcing it to intervene.
Chang Ho-jin, a former South Korean presidential foreign policy secretary, said: “Trump could feel the need to talk to the North to manage the situation for now, and publicly claim that he had warded off the possible military provocations that Kim has threatened.
“By raising inter-Korean tensions, North Korea could also be hoping South Korea will push harder to get sanctions exemptions for joint economic projects that have so far been elusive.”
A diplomatic source in Seoul said U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun who had led negotiations with North Korea, are willing to make “last-ditch efforts” before the U.S. election.
The source said: “There was anxiety among them that they couldn’t just idle away the first half of this year.”
But a US source familiar with the matter told Reuters that while Washington is willing to talk with Pyongyang at any time, there will unlikely be any negotiations that lead to a significant breakthrough in the near future, especially if North Korea only offers to dismantle its main Yongbyon nuclear facility.
The source said that sanctions relief is likely far away, as North Korea has been unwilling to discuss abandoning enough of its nuclear programmes for the United States to consider rolling back sanctions.
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The pandemic, anti-racism protests and the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden may have changed Kim’s strategy for winning concessions, said Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean chief nuclear negotiator.
In his New Year address, Kim vowed to unveil a “new strategic weapon,” after Washington ignored a year-end deadline he had set for a restart of talks, but North Korea appears to have fallen off Trump’s agenda as he found himself mired in domestic crises.
“North Korea had been expected to stage a serious provocation such as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, but COVID-19 and the ensuing U.S. political situation seem to have provided Kim a new calculation,” Wi said.
“With Trump already in trouble, firing an ICBM would only benefit Biden, so he resorted to short-range missile testing as a stop-gap measure and now is targeting the South.”