North Korea's Kim stokes tensions with an eye on distracted Trump

SEOUL North Korea has been ramping up tensions with South Korea in recent weeks, but the campaign seems aimed at making a renewed push for sanctions relief by recapturing the attention of a U.S. administration that is distracted by domestic issues.

North Korea blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border last week, declared an end to dialogue with South Korea and threatened military action.

After three historic meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to lead to a denuclearisation deal, U.S. President Donald Trump's attention is fixed elsewhere, including the coronavirus epidemic, anti-racism protests, and the November presidential election.

Kim, however, is facing real-world consequences for the failed talks, with North Korea's sanctions-hit economy further strained by a border lockdown imposed to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, potentially threatening his support base among the elites and military.

Analysts say one of Kim's goals in lashing out at U.S. ally South Korea is to remind Washington of the unresolved issues with North Korea, potentially forcing it to intervene.

"Trump could feel the need to talk to the North to manage the situation for now, and publicly claim that he had warded off the possible military provocations that Kim has threatened," said Chang Ho-jin, a former South Korean presidential foreign policy secretary.

"By raising inter-Korean tensions, North Korea could also be hoping South Korea will push harder to get sanctions exemptions for joint economic projects that have so far been elusive."


A diplomatic source in Seoul said U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun who had led negotiations with North Korea, are willing to make "last-ditch efforts" before the U.S. election.

"There was anxiety among them that they couldn't just idle away the first half of this year," the source said, noting Washington would switch to full election mode soon.

But a U.S. source familiar with the matter told Reuters that while Washington is willing to talk with Pyongyang at any time, there will unlikely be any negotiations that lead to a significant breakthrough in the near future, especially if North Korea only offers to dismantle its main Yongbyon nuclear facility.

The source said that sanctions relief is likely far away, as North Korea has been unwilling to discuss abandoning enough of its nuclear programmes for the United States to consider rolling back sanctions.

The pandemic, anti-racism protests and the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden may have changed Kim's strategy for winning concessions, said Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean chief nuclear negotiator.

In his New Year address, Kim vowed to unveil a "new strategic weapon," after Washington ignored a year-end deadline he had set for a restart of talks, but North Korea appears to have fallen off Trump's agenda as he found himself mired in domestic crises.

"The North Korean Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) test was thought to be a serious provocation, but under the COVID-19 and subsequent political scenarios, Kim appears to have provided a new count," Wai said.

"ICBM shootings that are already in trouble with Trump will only benefit Biden, so he resorted to short-range missile testing as a stop-gap measure and is now targeting the South."

If Biden is elected, any negotiations for Kim will be "very painful" because he will have a more serious approach without summiting and will empower negotiators, said Cho Tae-Yong, a former South Korean Korean filmmaker who previously served as foreign minister. Biden's foreign policy adviser.

Some experts do not condemn the withdrawal of the ICBM test if Trump's chances of losing the election increase, but it also upset China, which is lobbying Pyongyang to reduce international sanctions.

"Like the ICBM test, it can be a serious provocation, so Kim should not remove her arm until November," Wai said.

(Reporting by Hyonhe Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Songmi Cha in Seoul and David Branstrom and Humera Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Josh Smith and King Gopalakrishnan)

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