North Korea is signaling a firmer stance toward the U.S. following the breakdown of denuclearization talks, with leader Kim Jong Un visiting a military unit for the first time this year and directing pilots in combat maneuvers. He left having “expressed great satisfaction over the excellent readiness,” the report said.
Kim hadn’t visited a military facility since November. Security analysts saw Kim’s most recent trip as a message to the Trump administration: Unless Washington is prepared to compromise on sanctions, Pyongyang can revert to a cycle of confrontation.
The North Korean leader said last week that the U.S. had until year’s end to change its stance in nuclear talks or risk a “gloomy and very dangerous” response.
“Kim Jong Un doesn’t make meaningless visits,” said Moon Seong-mook, a retired South Korean army brigadier general and an analyst for the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, a private think tank in Seoul.“He’s sending a message internationally that we are ready militarily, and domestically that we need to be thoroughly prepared.”
Washington and Pyongyang remain gridlocked over how the North should relinquish its nuclear arsenal. Though the two countries’ leaders affirmed their close personal ties in recent days, the Kim regime has expressed frustration, if not astonishment, over U.S. demands for specific commitments on Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
New evidence suggesting nuclear pursuits came Tuesday, when researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, using satellite imagery, identified five specialized railcars inside Pyongyang’s main Yongbyon nuclear facility. The railcars were near a uranium-enrichment facility and radiochemistry lab. The North has previously used railcars for the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns, the CSIS said.
“Kim is reminding us, in a general way, that unless the Trump administration is prepared to move forward, then he has military options to up the ante,” said Euan Graham, a North Korea security expert at Australia’s La Trobe University.
About two-fifths of North Korea’s 810 combat aircraft are stationed near Pyongyang, according to South Korean Defense Ministry estimates. The unit is tasked with helping defend airspace over the capital, according to North Korean state media.
North Korea maintains an active military of roughly 1.2 million members, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. Pyongyang’s air force also operates drones and surface-to-air missiles.