Defense

North Korea seems likely to test long-range missile as it returns to 'old tactics' in talks with US

Key Points
  • North Korea said in early December that it would surprise Washington with a Christmas present.
  • "I hope I'm wrong ... I think the North Koreans are going to test a intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)," Kazianis said.
  • Kazianis said that this situation is a major challenge for China, noting the country has always been "in a very prickly position" with North Korea.
North Korea test fires a new weapon, in this undated photo released on August 11, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
KCNA | Reuters

The United States needs to stop expecting North Korea to just "surrender," said Harry Kazianis, senior director at D.C.-based think tank the Center for National Interest.

The more achievable goal would be to mitigate tensions with Pyongyang using economic solutions and collaboration with China, he suggested.

North Korea said in early December that it would surprise Washington with a Christmas present.

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"I hope I'm wrong ... I think the North Koreans are going to test a intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)," Kazianis said. He explained it would probably be similar to the ICBM test in 2017, adding "I think the North Koreans have been very clear that they're going to do this."

North Korea's state-owned paper on Tuesday called for development of new weapons to bolster national security on the 28th anniversary of a late former leader's inauguration as the supreme commander of the army.

"If they really want to sort of drive the point home that they can put the United States at risk of a nuclear weapon, they would actually put a dummy warhead at the end of it and show that that warhead can get through the atmosphere and hit something like a city," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Tuesday.

Kazianis said that the ICBM that Pyongyang tested in November 2017 already had a 10,000 km range, enough to threaten the continental U.S. He added that the country tested its first nuclear weapon 13 years ago.

"This is a threat we have to take seriously," he added.

Going back to 2017 tensions

The think tank director said, based on his conversation with many White House advisors, the consensus is that if and when Pyongyang fires an ICBM on Christmas Day, U.S. President Donald Trump would be "very insulted" and "very, very upset." The president will feel that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has broken a promise he made to Trump which is to not test ICBMs.

Kazianis said that Trump's approach to North Korea has been somewhat "unorthodox" as he met with Kim three separate times over the last two years trying to get a deal.

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"And now North Korea is sort of going back to old tactics," he said, " I think what Trump is going to do is you're going to see him apply maximum pressure 2.0. You're going to see more sanctions, a beefed up U.S. presence in the region and I think we're going to go back to tensions of 2017."

But this time around, there is "no off ramp" like the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea that helped diffuse the tensions, Kazianis pointed out, adding that he is "very worried where this goes."

Sanctions can contain the problem to a certain extent but it is important to understand that if Washington's goal is for Pyongyang to "surrender," that is not going to be possible, he said.

China has control on the situation

Kazianis said that this situation is a major challenge for China, noting the country has always been "in a very prickly position" with North Korea.

"(China) hates this to be honest with you. We have to remember, Beijing above all else craves stability. That's how their markets stay stable. That's how everything is pinned for them. So, I don't think they like this," said Kazianis.

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Beijing's power over Pyongyang stems from North Korea's economic reliance. Kazianis noted that 90% of the isolated nation's exports go through China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae on Monday at a trilateral meeting in Chengdu, China. The three heads of state are set to talk about trade, bilateral relations and the North Korea issue.