SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong Un went into his summit with President Donald Trump with one objective: relief from international sanctions crippling North Korea’s economy.
Having come away from the Hanoi summit empty-handed, North Korea is inching toward provocation and simultaneously tugging at heartstrings.
On one hand, satellite images have detected activity at a launch facility and a missile manufacturing complex — sites North Korea knows are being closely watched — signaling the country may be gearing up for a rocket launch.
At the same time, through the United Nations, North Korea is pleading that it is facing a food shortage after a year of poor harvests and its people may soon go hungry.
The United Nations last week said harvests in North Korea were down 9 percent in 2018, the lowest yield in a decade, and that 3.8 million people — 1 out of 7 North Koreans — were urgently in need of “life-saving aid.”
“This is part of, at the very least, framing sanctions in a different way than most of the world knows of them,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, co-editor of the website North Korean Economy Watch and associate scholar with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “To say that ‘Hey, it’s not just that we can’t export and import missile parts, it’s also causing our people to starve.’”
For the moment, much of Washington’s attention is trained on the potential provocation. Commercial satellite images from immediately before and after the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, signal North Korea is taking steps to launch a rocket, analysts said.
Melissa Hanham, a nuclear expert at the One Earth Future Foundation, said in all likelihood, North Korea will launch a space rocket rather than test a missile, because the site has only been used for space launches and every ICBM launch has come from a mobile launcher. Even so, the timing would send a message, she said.
The U.S. has always considered space launches by North Korea problematic because it uses the same technology as long-range missiles. A 2012 deal between the Obama administration and North Korea for food aid in exchange for a freeze in uranium enrichment fell apart after North Korea attempted to send a satellite into orbit.
In a leaked memo in the lead-up to the Hanoi summit, a North Korean official pleaded for assistance from international organizations to address an impending food shortage that he said was caused not only by abnormally high temperatures and natural disasters, but by “barbaric and inhuman sanctions.”
While humanitarian assistance is exempted from sanctions, the official said they still affected food production by limiting the availability of equipment, including tractors and harvesters, as well as chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticide and herbicide. At least one country has heeded North Korea’s plea.
The weekend following the Hanoi summit, Russia shipped 2,092 tons of wheat in humanitarian aid to feed children and pregnant women, according to the Russian embassy on Pyongyang’s Facebook page.