Kim’s gift for Trump
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, D.C.
Tensions between the United States and North Korea have begun to heat up for the first time since the 2017-18 crisis. At the beginning of this month the North’s leader Kim Jong-un issued a statement promising a “Christmas present” for the United States if U.S. President Donald Trump did not make concessions on sanctions by the end of the year. Then on Dec. 7, Pyongyang announced that it had conducted a “successful and significant test” — probably a liquid-fueled rocket test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Facility which the North had earlier claimed to shut down after Kim Jong-un’s June 2018 Singapore summit with President Trump. In response Trump warned that North Korea “could lose everything” if it returned to provocative nuclear and missile tests. A senior North Korean official fired back by criticizing Trump by name for the first time since the Singapore summit.
Two questions have caused a pall of uncertainty to settle over the Korean Peninsula: What will North Korea do at the end of this month and how will Trump respond?
Kim has rich menu of options for escalating in the coming weeks. At the extreme end of the spectrum would be a seventh nuclear test at Punggye-ri, but this probably carries too much risk for Pyongyang for now. Kim is still seeing what he can get from Washington, and a nuclear test would humiliate Presidents Trump and Moon before they would have a chance to deliver. A nuclear test would also end China’s lax enforcement of sanctions and bring significant hardship to the North for relatively little gain — at this point.(Nuclear tests could come further down the road.)
A solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test would be the next most extreme step. This step would allow Pyongyang to demonstrate the capability to deliver a warhead on the United States after re-entry into the atmosphere. An ICBM test would also invite less Chinese retribution than a nuclear test since the missile tests only complicate Chinese President Xi Jinping’s geopolitical relationship with the United States while nuclear tests genuinely outrage the Chinese public. Yet an ICBM test would also represent a direct return to the crisis of 2017 caused by the Hwasong-15 launch and would explicitly burst Trump’s belief that he has a deal with Kim Jong-un to freeze what the U.S. President calls “anything nuclear.”
A liquid-fueled rocket test masquerading as satellite launch development would represent a provocative but somewhat safer escalation by Kim Jong-un. The chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff recently stated that the engine test at Sohae would be used to develop new weapons to “definitely and reliably” counter U.S. nuclear threats — giving the lie to the “peaceful satellite launch” myth. Still, Beijing and Moscow — and maybe even Trump — may play along with that myth even though previous United Nations Security Council Resolutions effectively ban even satellite launches.
What should the Trump administration do? For now, the administration has dispatched U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun to the region for coordination with the other regional powers and perhaps to make a diplomatic overture to Pyongyang. Perhaps this will result in a third Trump-Kim summit in the New Year and continuation of the freeze-for-freeze arrangement even though a breakthrough on real denuclearization will likely continue proving elusive.
If the North does choose a more provocative Christmas present, however, the administration will face a difficult decision.
One bad option would be for President Trump to do what he has done so often in recent weeks — to escalate rhetoric and uncertainty and then settle for a bad deal. With the U.S.M.C.A. (North American) free trade agreement this month the President surrendered to the Democratic Party and labor union demands so that he could declare a legislative victory in the middle of the impeachment trial in Congress. His Phase 1 trade deal with China also represents little more than a freeze-for-freeze on tariffs for the election year. North Korea’s ambassador to the UN has declared that “denuclearization is off the table,” and there is little evidence that Pyongyang is prepared to go beyond its demand in Hanoi, Vietnam, for sanctions lifting in exchange for a partial freeze and dismantlement process limited to the Yongbyon facility. Trump may be tempted to ignore that reality and go for an end-of-war declaration and withdrawal of U.S. forces (fueled by the impasse in the Special Measures Agreement with Seoul) which he would then try to spin as a diplomatic victory based on a hollow reiteration of Kim Jong-un’s commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (by which Pyongyang means the United States has to denuclearize first, as we know).
One could argue that military options like the bloody nose would be an even worse response, but opposition to military strikes in Congress and the Pentagon rose to a level in 2018 that would make that path politically much more difficult this time — barring the most extreme North Korean actions.
The best option would be to turn any provocation and crisis into an opportunity to solidify the U.S.-South position in order to gain more leverage over North Korea. This would involve resumption of joint military exercises; a reconstitution of U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral strategic cooperation; increased sanctions on North Korea, including secondary sanctions as required; and then a joint international diplomatic approach to demand more substantive denuclearization steps by Pyongyang. Sometimes bad outcomes give way to better strategies. We’ll see.