SEOUL — The signals are confusing. One day, North Korea is raising hopes for dialogue with South Korea, and the next, it is firing missiles or showing off the latest weaponry in its nuclear arsenal.
In the past week alone, North suggested the possibility of inter-Korean summit talks and said it would reopen communication hotlines with its neighbor. It also fired long-range cruise missiles, trotted out what it called its first hypersonic missile and, on Thursday, tested a new antiaircraft missile. Earlier in September, it launched ballistic missiles from a train rolled out of a mountain tunnel, on the same day that it called the South’s president, Moon Jae-in, “stupid.”
Once again, North Korea is turning to a well-honed, two-pronged strategy, designed to let it flex its military muscles without risking retaliation or nixing the chances for dialogue.
In the absence of talks with Washington, the missile tests reminded the world that North Korea is developing increasingly sophisticated weaponry capable of delivering nuclear warheads. But individually, these short-range or still-under-development missiles don’t amount to a direct threat to the United States.
met with then-President Donald J. Trump three times between 2018 and 2019, becoming the first North Korean leader to hold a summit with a sitting American president. But his diplomatic efforts failed to lift crippling sanctions the United Nations imposed on his impoverished country after its nuclear and I.C.B.M. tests. Soon the pandemic hit, further hamstringing the North’s economy.
American and South Korean officials had hoped that the North’s deepening economic troubles, caused by the double whammy of sanctions and the pandemic, would make North Korea more amenable to dialogue.
So far, Mr. Kim has proved them wrong.
Since his talks with Mr. Trump collapsed in early 2019, he has vowed to slog through the economic difficulties while expanding his nuclear arsenal, his country’s single best diplomatic leverage and deterrent against what it considers American threats to topple its government. By demonstrating his country’s growing military capabilities, Mr. Kim has also sought to legitimize his rule at a time when he has been able to deliver little on the economic front to his long-suffering people.
The antiaircraft missile test on Thursday indicated that the North is building a weapon similar to Russia’s S-400, one of the most potent air-defense systems in the world, according to Kim Dong-yub, an expert on North Korean weapons at the University of North Korean Studies.
The Biden administration has repeatedly urged North Korea to return to talks without preconditions. But Mr. Kim said he would not restart negotiations until he was convinced that Washington was ready to ease sanctions and its “hostile policy,” including the joint annual military exercises it conducts with South Korea.
an arms race in the region.
Mr. Kim can’t really attempt shocking provocations like the ones he conducted in 2017 — three I.C.B.M. tests and a nuclear test — that brought the Trump administration to the table. Such tests would sharply raise tensions, invite more U.N. sanctions and potentially invoke the ire of China by ruining the mood for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.