The Irish Times view on the situation facing North Korea: Managing the stalemate

North Korea appears to be seeking to project a sense of strength just at a moment when all the evidence suggests it is struggling to cope due to international isolation and a domestic economic crisis

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the ground-breaking ceremony of a construction project in Pyongyang. Photograph: STR/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the ground-breaking ceremony of a construction project in Pyongyang. Photograph: STR/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Images

 

By carrying out two provocative weapons tests in the past week, North Korea appears to be seeking to project a sense of strength just at a moment when all the evidence suggests it is struggling to cope due to international isolation and a domestic economic crisis. However, that does not make the latest military moves by Pyongyang any less dangerous.

The regime is facing acute pressure. Human rights groups report that the country is under severe economic strain. Having closed the border with China and restricted internal movement in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, markets are closed or poorly-stocked and little foreign aid is entering, resulting in growing concerns over food security for the country’s 25 million people.

Meanwhile, the regime is having to contend with typhoon damage and the ongoing impact of international sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear weapons programme. Some analysts predict a humanitarian crisis worse than any since a famine that killed millions of people in the mid-1990s.

The North’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, has rebuffed an attempt by the Biden administration to open a line of communication. More than a year has passed since North Korea spoke directly to US officials, with relations having deteriorated after the collapse of shambolic negotiations between Kim and then US president Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019. While that lack of contact limits Washington’s options, a bigger problem is that the US is locked in back-and-forth recriminations with the country that has the greatest leverage over Pyongyang: China. Even though Beijing and Washington share an interest in containing Kim and ensuring stability on the Korean peninsula, the current tensions between them will complicate efforts to arrive at a joint approach.

South Korea maintains that Kim would be willing to give up his nuclear weapons if offered the right incentives. It’s unlikely the hypothesis will be tested any time soon. The best that the world can hope for, it seems, is to manage the stalemate as safely as possible.

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