If ordering the missile strike on Syrian targets, dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, and assembling a war-ready armada off the Korean Peninsula were all meant to convey Donald Trump’s message that things are different with him in the White House, what happened Saturday might well be Kim Jong -un’s way of saying “message received”.
Either because it chose to resort to a less provocative form of show of defiance, or it is technically not ready, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not carry out the widely anticipated sixth nuclear test. Instead, it launched another projectile, type unidentified, which failed.
Given the DPRK leader’s pledge of “ultra-toughness” in response to the US’ “toughness”, he had to simultaneously avoid being seen as softening under US pressure and crossing the perceived US redline — conducting a new nuclear test. Firing a missile of some sort was thus a calculated move, and making it without prompting a furious response from Washington surely qualifies as a win to some degree from Kim’s perspective.
Trump, too, can claim a win. That the nuclear test did not happen will surely be seen as the pressure working.
That Pyongyang kept tensions from reaching a dramatic climax can in some way be understood as a win for all parties concerned. At least they did not have to make the difficult decisions they would have had to if things had gone the other way.
The best part about the latest bout of Trump-Kim exchanges is both finally demonstrated rare restraint. The Trump administration has not excluded “engagement”, though the current focus reportedly remains “maximum pressure”. And Pyongyang’s restoration of its foreign affairs committee was hardly coincidence.
That affirms the judgment that war, as imminent as it looked, is not unavoidable.
Neither the DPRK nor the United States wants war, at least not at this point, nor do the Republic of Korea, China and other stakeholders.
But it would be dangerous miscalculation if Pyongyang takes advantage of the relative easing in tensions and presses ahead with its brinkmanship, as it has done over the years. Washington’s reported willingness to engage is conditional. And there is a strong, shared political will to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Washington did say it does not seek regime change. But that does not mean Pyongyang can indefinitely prolong its development of nuclear weapons.
There is a pressing need to de-escalate tensions and create conditions for diplomatic engagement, even if that is not immediate denuclearization talks.