The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called on his army to press ahead with its nuclear weapons programme. His statement came after North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan this week.
Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe called the missile launch “an act of indescribable violence.”
North Korea tested a nuclear device earlier this year and it now aims to miniaturise nuclear weapons so that they can be attached to missiles, according to Professor Kihl-Jae Ryoo from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
He was the minister for Unification for South Korea between 2013 and 2015.
Professor Ryoo was speaking on the record at Chatham House in London this week. He described the current situation as “explosive” and said that Kim Jong Un is “like a child playing with fire that could ignite at any time.”
He said that the threats from North Korea are now as strong as they were at the height of the Cold War. He said Kim Jung Un’s goal is to consolidate his power and to differentiate his leadership from that his father, Kim Jong-Il who died in 2011.
Professor Ryoo said that while he supported UN sanctions, North Korea has endured sanctions for many years without much impact on its regime.
The professor added that although there is some evidence that the economic situation is improving around Pyongyang, rural parts of the country remain in poverty and require humanitarian aid.
I asked Professor Ryoo if he believes a consistent message about North Korea is coming from Japan, South Korea and China. He replied that although the three countries are in broad agreement their perspectives are different, particularly because Japan and South Korea are US allies.
He urged Japan to adopt a missile defence system to protect itself from attack.
Professor Ryoo gave two scenarios in which the leadership of North Korea could change. One was “through an assassination or a coup d’etat”, although he added “I don’t think that is very likely.”
The other scenario is that North Korea becomes more open and its citizens are able to compare themselves to people in other countries. This might foster the start of a market-orientated economy which could lead to the gradual collapse of the present system. However, he added that “I don’t think that is happening at the moment.”
He repeated his wish to see the two Koreas reunite and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Asian region but he said that such a goal seems a long way off.
The leaders of Japan and South Korea held talks this week in Seoul, during which they condemned the missile launches by North Korea. They also reported progress over an issue which has divided them in the past – the so-called “comfort women” form Korea used by Japanese soldiers in the war.