Predictions for 2019
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
This time last year I ventured bravely into a series of predictions about the year to come. I do not think any foreign policy expert or journalist might have predicted that we would go from “shock and awe” to the “bloody nose” to the June Trump-Kim Jong-un summit to President Trump declaring he “fell in love” with Kim. Given the topsy-turvy year that was 2018, it would be folly to try to predict developments on the Korean Peninsula in 2019. But that will not deter me from trying, though I offer these with only moderate confidence. So here are seven predictions for 2019:
1. There will not be a second Trump-Kim Summit.
The logic for this prediction is straightforward. Donald Trump declared that he had successfully “denuclearized” the Korean Peninsula after his June Singapore summit, but nobody in the U.S. Congress believed him — nor did his own government. He is now under enormous pressure to demonstrate some concrete results before he reconvenes a summit with Kim. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un is probably realizing that Donald Trump’s sweeping vision in Singapore of a peace declaration and end to sanctions were more bluster and PR than real U.S. policy. Secretary of State Pompeo is trying to find traction with Pyongyang — looking for something that would be credible enough to justify the reputational risk of a second presidential summit, but North Korea’s expectations were far too high and the prospects of finding that traction have not improved with time. On the other hand, there is little political incentive for Donald Trump to declare his effort with Kim a failure, or to return to the “bloody nose” scenario after the strong opposition last time from allies, Congress and even his own Pentagon. So the status quo — neither crisis nor diplomatic breakthrough — could continue, with Trump claiming credit for at least having stopped North Korea from testing.
2. North Korea will not test nuclear weapons or ICBMs.
If the first prediction is right, then Pyongyang will grow frustrated with Washington, but the North will have its own logic to sustaining the middle path between crisis and diplomatic breakthrough. This is because of China. The Singapore Summit failed to win sanctions relief or a peace treaty for Pyongyang, but it did dissipate the pressure from China and Russia that had built in 2017 and early 2018. Kim Jong-un would risk a return of Chinese sanctions and pressure if he tested, so the incentive will be to continue probing the president’s room for a deal.
3. U.S.-North tensions will increase.
While the incentives for Trump and Kim are to avoid destroying the Singapore Summit, both sides will have reasons to increase pressure on the other short of provoking a major crisis. The U.S. side will steadily continue expanding sanctions and will come under pressure from the Pentagon and Congress to resume exercises before military readiness is hurt. Pyongyang will want to send signals warning Washington of the consequences of not making a deal. These signals will take the form of propaganda, cyber-attacks, tests of shorter-range missiles and continued work at missile and nuclear facilities.
4. Presidents Trump and Moon will lose domestic political capital and grow distracted from North Korea policy.
In Trump’s case, the investigation of independent counsel Robert Mueller will come to a climax and there will likely be indictments of associates and possibly even family members close to the president. The new Democratic-led House of Representatives will bombard the administration with subpoenas and hearings. In South Korea, Moon’s popularity will continue to decline because of the struggling economy and decreasing expectations for his North Korea policy. The South Korean public will continue to support engagement, but with the threat of war receding, the Blue House will receive ever less political support for its North Korea policy and the public will focus ever more on the economy.
5. The U.S.-South policy gap will become more visible, but there will be no bilateral crisis.
Without progress on denuclearization, Washington will be less receptive to Seoul’s requests for exemptions from UN Security Council sanctions and more insistent on resumption of military exercises. Neither the White House nor the Blue House can afford a crisis in alliance relations — in large part because the alliance is popular in both countries and the opposition parties will strike out in Congress and the National Assembly if there is a crisis.
6. South Korea will move closer to the U.S. Free and Open Pacific Strategy.
Initially wary of Washington’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” (FOIP) because it appeared aimed at China, Seoul will steadily increase participation in FOIP in 2019. In part this will be because of growing South Korean frustration with China in the wake of Beijing’s Thaad boycott. In part, it will be because other countries like Australia will encourage South Korean participation. In part, it will be because the U.S. strategy will involve more active steps to offer alternate infrastructure development finance and not just opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And in part, Seoul will increase participation to offset the growing gap with Washington on North Korea policy.
7. The Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and the U.S. Democratic Party will not find a candidate.
While Trump and Moon will lose political capital, the leading opposition parties in both countries will continue struggling to find a viable candidate to challenge the government. Divisions within LKP and the Democratic Party in the United States will only intensify in the battle for leadership.