Photo: KNCA via Reuters
Photo: KNCA via Reuters

North Korea may be so convinced that its strategic position vs. the US has changed for the better that it might be willing to step back from the brink of nuclear war and settle for “practical equilibrium” with the US.

Robert Carlin, a veteran Korea analyst writing for website 38 North, says that since two successful ICBM launches last July, Pyongyang may have come to the heady conclusion that it has reached the “final stage” in bolstering the nuclear force.

“It has even explicitly laid out a final goal, a “practical equilibrium” with the United States. What that means exactly we do not know, though presumably Pyongyang has something specific in mind,” Carlin wrote in an analysis posted on Tuesday by the specialist website on North Korea.

Carlin believes this may present an opportunity for North Korea and its adversaries “to stabilize the situation, that is, take a first step toward entering into longer-term negotiations that wrestle with the core issues.”

But the former State Department intelligence honcho cautions that a volatile diplomatic landscape and misperceptions on both sides could still lead to catastrophic miscalculation.

“One problem not well understood is that the North Koreans believe recent developments in their nuclear weapons program have boosted them to a level of invulnerability, and that as a result, Washington — whatever it might say — is without options to counter them,” Carlin wrote.

He warns that such a view could tempt the regime to take “one more fatal step” that triggers a US military response from a US president who doesn’t grasp North Korea’s real motives. Carlin says the “step” might involve a further demonstration of the North’s nuclear capability. He doesn’t say what — but he is clearly talking about another nuclear or missile test of unknown scale.

“Watching events in Washington, it would not be surprising if the North has concluded that the President is too weak and embattled to take decisive action in response,” Carlin warned.

On the upside, Carlin says the swirl of misperceptions could just as easily lead to defusing the crisis.

“In my view, the North is carefully laying the foundation for declaring a victory on the first half (the nuclear buildup) of Kim Jong-un’s March 2013 two-line policy (byungjin) and then turning the focus to the other half—the economy,” Carlin said.

“We don’t have to believe or disbelieve that this is Kim’s real line of March. All we need do is watch to see how he proceeds in the next few months, and judge whether developments provide an opportunity for both sides to step back long enough to explore how to stabilize the situation, that is, take a first step toward entering into longer-term negotiations that wrestle with the core issues,” he added.

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