- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Trump administration’s envoy to North Korea arrived in Seoul on Sunday just hours after Pyongyang claimed it conducted yet another “crucial” missile test, raising the stakes for both sides as a critical deadline looms at the end of the year.

Stephen E. Biegun, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, is expected to remain in Seoul for three days of meetings with his South Korean counterparts, including a sit-down with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Those meetings took on a whole new level of importance following North Korea’s declaration over the weekend that it had carried out another test, possibly involving the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.

Such weapons theoretically could hit the U.S.

While exact details remain unclear, it’s the second major test over just the past week and comes as North Korea’s self-imposed deadline for diplomacy looms at the end of the year.

North Korean officials boasted of the most recent test and said it underscores the country’s willingness and ability to defend itself against all aggressors.

“Genuine peace can be safeguarded and our development and future be guaranteed only when the balance of power is completely ensured. We have stored up a tremendous power,” Pak Jong-chon, chief of the Korean People’s Army’s general staff, said in a statement released by North Korean state media. “We should be ready to cope with political and military provocations of the hostile forces and be familiar with both dialogue and confrontation.”

Some analysts speculated that the test may have involved an engine for an ICBM or some type of new space launch vehicle.

More broadly, North Korea has conducted at least 13 rounds of ballistic missile and rocket tests since May. Those tests have come amid deadlocked talks on denuclearization between the U.S. and North Korea, despite unprecedented diplomacy by the Trump administration and three in-person meetings between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over the past 18 months.

Pyongyang has set an end-of-year deadline to restart the stalled talks, and the most recent tests appear to be part of an effort to pressure the U.S. to come back to the table with new concessions. North Korea, for example, has insisted that the U.S. relieve pressure from economic sanctions before the country takes firm denuclearization steps.

In addition to the tests over the past week, analysts say there are other potential signs that North Korea may be mounting a last-minute show of strength to pull the U.S. to the table. Researchers with the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed to recent renewed activity at the nation’s Nampo Naval Shipyard — possible indications that North Korea may be eyeing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test.

“There are no signs indicating that the submersible test stand barge is being prepared for an imminent SLBM launch. Despite this, readiness of the test stand barge indicates that a SLBM demonstration should not be ruled out as a potential upcoming demonstration with just over two weeks left in [North Korea‘s] professed end-of-year diplomacy deadline,” researchers Joseph Bermudez and Victor Cha wrote over the weekend.

While Mr. Kim has suspended nuclear testing and other more serious tests during his negotiations with the Trump administration, there are growing fears that North Korea may not be sincere about pursuing denuclearization. Last week, The Washington Times obtained a letter written by a high-level North Korean defector warning that Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear ambitions and arguing that Washington should instead ramp up efforts to force Mr. Kim from power.

“As long as Kim Jong-un remains in power, denuclearization of North Korea is permanently impossible because [Mr. Kim] regards nuclear weapons as the last means to defend his survival,” the defector warned Mr. Trump.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Biegun or other top administration officials will publicly reach out to North Korea as the Dec. 31 deadline draws closer.

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