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Analysis: Pyongyang's view of the North Korea-U.S. crisis

N. Korea's missile test
N. Korea's missile test 02:03

This analysis was written by a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia 

From Pyongyang's standpoint, the storyline of its engagement with the U.S. looks something like this:

Prior to President Trump's inauguration, North Korea made it clear it was prepared to give the new U.S. administration time to review the policy and come up with something better than President Obama's.  The only wrinkle was that if the U.S. went full-steam ahead with its annual joint exercises with South Korea (especially if that were accompanied by more talk of "decapitation" and more flights of strategic bombers over the Korean peninsula), the North would react strongly.

In short, the U.S. did, and the North reacted.

Behind-the-scenes contacts went up and down, but couldn't get traction.  In April, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un paraded new missiles as a warning, to no effect.  The regime launched the new systems, one after another.  Still, Washington's approach didn't change.

North Korea missile test 03:49

On July 4, after North Korea's first successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, Kim sent a public signal that the North could put the nuclear and missile programs "on the table" if the U.S. changed its approach.

The U.S. did not, so the North launched another ICBM, very deliberately deeming it a warning to the U.S. that they were to be taken seriously. Still, more B-1 bombers flew over the Peninsula, and the U.N. Security Council passed new sanctions.

As a result, Pyongyang announced the Guam gambit: Four missiles would bracket the island as soon as the Strategic Force worked out the plans and gave them to Kim for his approval. The announcement indicated that the four missiles would overfly Japan, in effect signaling that the previous restraint demonstrated by lofting missiles in order to avoid such over-flights was at an end.

On August 14, Kim announced he had approved the Guam plan but was holding off its execution in order to watch the U.S. a little longer. Two weeks later, signaling that he was still holding back (but only a little), Kim launched a missile over Japan. It was, in a real sense, the first true "provocation" by the North since the November 2010 shelling of a South Korean-held island off the North Korean coast. Previous missile launches don't really qualify as provocations – they were tests either of hardware or of operational readiness.

The nuclear tests of 2015 and 2016 were not provocations. They were the normal part of a development program.  But the missile over Japan? It was a provocative act, and meant to be seen as such. The North was sending a calculated signal that more would be coming if the U.S. didn't change North Korea policy.

N. Korea fires missile over Japan 01:02

There are flashes of light and far-off rumbles of thunder in DPRK media that suggest a serious policy discussion within the regime about how to interpret the current overall situation and, flowing from that, the next steps. This is not a sign that the regime is coming apart. And it is not "dissent" in the commonly understand meaning of the word. It does, however, suggest that core decisions are being reevaluated, and thus that there could be a window open for considering new ideas.

There are as yet no signs that the population is being mobilized for a military crisis. That could change in an instant. How broad that mobilization is (country-wide, or limited to the frontline counties, for instance), if it comes, will be an important indicator of whether Kim has decided the time has come to roll the dice. He has been serious about the economy up to now, and his economic reform policies have been carefully conceived and skillfully implemented. What we need to watch for are signs that the regime has become fatalistic, that it believes it must go down fighting because there is no other option left. In that case, we could well see the use of nuclear weapons.

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