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Missile-Toe? US General Frets Pyongyang’s ‘Christmas Gift’ Could be Long-Range Test

© REUTERS / KCNANorth Korean Leader Kim Jong Un looks on during the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July, 4 2017.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un looks on during the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July, 4 2017. - Sputnik International
With North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Years’ deadline for resuming negotiations quickly approaching, some Pentagon leaders are fretting that Kim may send the US a “Christmas gift” or possibly ring in the new year with a new long-range missile test. Kim announced a unilateral moratorium on such tests in April 2018.

“A long-range ballistic missile” test is expected before year's end, according to Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces and air component commander for US Indo-Pacific Command.

“What I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile would be the gift. It’s just a matter of does it come on Christmas Eve, does it come on Christmas Day, does it come after the New Year,” Brown told reporters at a breakfast roundtable on Tuesday, according to The Hill.

Despite several attempts to restart talks aimed at denuclearization since negotiations fell apart in Hanoi in late February, representatives from the United States and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have failed to regain the momentum they had in the summer of 2018. The first talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump, hosted by Singapore in June 2018, yielded the basic framework of a path to peace on the peninsula, and in the following months, Pyongyang began the demolition of several major test sites for its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

However, the US failed to make reciprocal moves in kind, declaring that strangling sanctions against the DPRK would not be lowered until irreversible denuclearization was independently verified. Pyongyang continued making progress on the Korean front, signing an end-of-war declaration with South Korea in September 2018, but no further gains have been made with the US.

The following spring, the DPRK resumed its rocket tests, but only with short-range weapons believed to be for a portable rocket launcher system, not the long-range, nuclear-capable projectiles deemed unacceptable by Washington and the United Nations.

Two new tests earlier this month, however, have US leaders changing their expectations about what is to come. “Crucial” tests on December 7 and 13 at the Sohae cosmodrome have been judged by analysts to be rocket engine test firings. The Diplomat noted the existence of a large liquid propellant engine test stand at Sohae, and Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, noted disturbed ground and debris surrounding the test site in before/after satellite photos, also suggesting a rocket engine test.

Trump told reporters Monday he would “disappointed” if Pyongyang tested a long-range weapons, noting that “we’re watching it very closely” to see if something is in the works.

Washington’s special envoy to the DPRK, Stephen Biegun, has urged Kim to return to negotiations, following a statement carried by KCNA, the country’s state news service, that the US "has nothing to offer us even if the talks are resumed.”

“You know how to reach us,” Biegun said at a Seoul news conference on Monday. “The United States does not have a deadline.”

A further sign of deteriorating relations has been the revival of insults traded by Trump and Kim during the nadir of diplomacy in 2017, including Trump’s diminutive nickname for Kim of “rocket man” and Pyongyang’s labeling of Trump as a “dotard.” Both barbs appeared once more earlier this month.

Brown told on Wednesday that if the DPRK did test an intercontinental ballistic missile like the Hwasong-14 it fired in July 2017, the US Air Force could “dust off” some of the tactics it used back then to intimidate Pyongyang away from subsequent tests, including flying nuclear-capable bombers close to the DPRK border.

"We're going through all the complete options," Brown said. "My job is to write this military advice and then our leadership will determine which levers they want to pull."
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