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Asia

Kim's missile threat is a shot across Washington's bow

North Korea's leader has hinted that he is ready to order the launch of a game-changing intercontinental ballistic missile - but will he play it careful during Trump's early days in office? Julian Ryall reports.

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North Korea 'close to testing' long-range missile

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, greeted the dawning of 2017 with a robust warning to his enemies that his regime is close to launching an intercontinental ballistic missile and demanded that the United States repeal its "anachronistic hostile policy" towards Pyongyang.

Analysts agree that Kim's warnings are a continuation of the bombastic pronouncements he has made in the five years since he assumed the leadership of the world's only communist dynasty, but global geopolitical uncertainties - primarily turmoil in the government in South Korea and an incoming administration in Washington with policies towards Pyongyang that are as yet unclear - mean that tensions are likely to continue to rise in the coming months.

In his televised New Year's address, Kim emphasized that North Korea has "soared as a nuclear and military power in the East that no formidable enemy dare encroach upon," state-run media reported.

ICBM launch preparations

Preparations to launch an ICBM have "reached the final stage," he said. And few have any doubts that Kim would back down from a launch, given that he went ahead with two underground nuclear tests in 2016 as well as numerous missile launches - including from submarines - last year.

A number of think tanks have suggested that Kim may order a launch on one of the red-letter days in the North's calendar, the first of which comes as early as January 8, Kim's birthday. North Korea carried out a nuclear test on January 6, 2016.

Nordkorea Raketentest (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Young-joon)

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are likely to continue to rise in the coming months

Analysts also say Kim may choose to make a statement close to the inauguration of Donald Trump as president on January 20, or to coincide with presidential elections that might be held in South Korea as early as March.

"I am fairly confident that he will conduct some sort of significant military test - an ICBM launch seems the most likely - shortly before or immediately after Trump is sworn in," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

"Basically, he will be sending a message that North Korea is a nuclear power, that the world needs to take Pyongyang seriously, and that it needs to be included in any thinking about security in northeast Asia," he told DW.

Uncertain abilities

At present, the regime undoubtedly has nuclear weapons and missiles, although it is not clear that Kim's scientists have mastered the technology required to miniaturize warheads sufficiently for them to be attached to a missile and, just as importantly, for the missile to survive re-entry before hitting a target in North America. A successful launch of an ICBM will demonstrate that it has overcome those challenges, Nagy said.

"It is a nuclear power but it cannot - at the moment - project that power very far," Nagy said. "When it has shown that it can, that will be a game-changing moment."

Washington has already responded to Kim's New Year's Day speech by saying that any such launch would be "unacceptable" and would be met with "consequences."

Such warnings are unlikely to sway Kim, however, as successive North Korean regimes have been under varying degrees of sanctions for decades and he has still managed to significantly upgrade his military capabilities.

And, worryingly, in a report issued in December, South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy warned that "a tense standoff between Washington and Pyongyang may lead to another nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula."

Südkorea Protest gegen Präsidentin Park Geun Hye & Forderung nach Rücktritt (Reuters/K. Hong-Ji)

North Korea revels in the South's political crisis

Degree of optimism

Yet others prefer to be more optimistic about the likely actions and reactions that will impact the Korean Peninsula in the coming months.

Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence and ambassador to Tokyo and London, said he was "not surprised at all" at the contents of Kim's speech. He pointed out that intelligence assessments issued in December 2015 of North Korea's activities in 2016 had proved to be "very wrong and overly pessimistic."

"I prefer to look forward with a degree of optimism," he said. "I do not believe there was much new in Kim's speech, as we have known for a long time that they are developing long-range missiles, and he is merely repeating that intention.

"I believe that North Korea will choose to be cautious, at least until after the new US president has been sworn in, the administration there is taking shape and we all have a better idea of its foreign policy, in particular with regard to North Korea," he said.

Nordkorea Kim Jong Un beim Simulationsmanöver (Getty Images/AFP/KCNA)

Kim may choose to make a statement close to the inauguration of Trump as president on January 20

"They may well also take a similar stance towards South Korea, which should have a new government in place by the middle of this year," he added.

That expectation may be correct, if Pyongyang does want the South Korean public to vote for a political party that is more centrist or even left-leaning, after some years of conservative and hard-line administrations in Seoul. Nuclear tests and missile launches would help a candidate who promised to stand firm against Pyongyang; signs of a thaw in bilateral ties might give a boost to parties that advocate engagement over the 38th parallel.

"So I do not expect much in the way of provocation from the North in the first half of the year," Rah said.

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