In fall of 2017 threats of fire and fury filled the air. President Donald Trump applied his “maximum pressure” policy to North Korea, tightening sanctions while sending the “armada” to sit off the North’s coast. Pyongyang responded with a cascade of unique insults and threats.
Reflexive hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed worries about starting a war “over there” in Northeast Asia. The U.S. and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea appeared to be but one errant tweet away from Korean War II.
Then came the unexpected in 2018: an explosion of diplomacy. Kim Jong-un made the rounds, meeting Moon Jae-in, Xi Jinping, and, most importantly, Donald Trump. Missile and nuclear tests were suspended. Military exercises were halted. Official visits were exchanged. Promises of denuclearization were made. America’s president fell in love, or so he said.
Relations warmed, but the president’s expectation that the North Korean leader was going to show up, nukes in hand, never was realistic. The push for an all-or-nothing deal stalled, along with separate steps to offer the DPRK some assurance that Washington no longer was pressing for regime change—such as making a peace declaration/treaty and opening liaison offices.
The surprise collapse of the Hanoi summit triggered a global diplomatic retreat by North Korea. The June Panmunjom “drive-by” handshake between Trump and Kim briefly revived hopes of renewed negotiation, but later talks ended quickly with Pyongyang complaining that the administration offered nothing new, presumably meaning a realistic path forward with meaningful sanctions relief before full denuclearization. Kim Yong-chol, a top DPRK official, said that Washington “should not dream of the negotiations for denuclearization before dropping its hostile policy toward” the North.
Kim set the end of the year as a deadline for an agreement being reached. And in his 2019 New Year’s speech warned that the North would be “compelled to explore a new path” if the United States “seeks to force something upon us unilaterally ... and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure.” The mysterious picture of Kim upon a white horse on snowy, sacred Mt. Paektu last October suggested that a big policy change or announcement was in the works. The Korean Central News Agency reported that officials accompanying him were “convinced that there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again and advance the Korean revolution a step forward.”
The short-lived Stockholm talks, also in October, included a warning. The North’s nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, said a new round was up to America and "Whether there will be any shocking actions that nobody would expect to see if the U.S. is not ready, nobody knows. Let's wait and see.”
The North continued to launch short-range missiles, which President Trump dismissed as unimportant. However, having gotten no satisfactory reaction from Washington, Pyongyang officials have issued new warnings. Last week Choe Son-hui, First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, complained that “We have given time and taken measures to build trust but there have been no corresponding measures in return.” Ominously, she announced: “If the United States does not take corresponding steps so that the chance of diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula disappears, I think the responsibility should lie squarely with the U.S.” President Trump proposed another summit but DPRK officials dismissed “the tricky U.S.” and “useless meetings.”
In late November Kim visited frontline military units for the first time since May and ordered the army to conduct a “real war-like drill” at a “higher degree of intensity.” Pyongyang conducted live-fire artillery tests, apparently overseen by Kim, which violated the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement. The logical next step is to escalate with a new long-range missile launch.
The North probably has two objectives. The first is to push negotiations away from denuclearization and toward arms control. It is unlikely that Kim is prepared to give up weapons developed at such great cost, especially when they offer status and security internationally and build military loyalty domestically. The Libya model so beloved by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton illustrates the North’s dilemma: oral promises and paper guarantees offer no protection from a U.S. decision to make additional demands or pursue regime change after the North has disarmed.
Second, the president is vulnerable. While imagining himself to be a negotiating genius, he, in fact, is about as lousy as one can be. He lacks more than superficial understanding, takes impossible positions, telegraphs his intentions, focuses on trivia, doubles down on losing strategies, repels potential allies, fails to follow through, and declares minimal advantage to be a huge victory. Now he is about to enter an election year without a foreign policy success of note: the trade war with China continues to rage, U.S. troops still fight in all the wars he promised to end, none of his targets of “maximum pressure” have compromised, let alone surrendered, his chief foreign “friends” are dictators who undermine American interests and values, and his demands for substantial increases in allied military contributions remain unfulfilled in Asia and Europe. With Democrats sure to target his dismal record, he increasingly needs a win to tout to the electorate.
So don’t be surprised if Kim continues to play hard to get, disdainfully rejecting administration offers to talk, in the expectation that the president will grow ever more desperate to reach a deal. Pyongyang probably will schedule a long-range missile test to dramatically raise the pressure: after two years of “beautiful” letters and heartfelt meetings, Trump would find himself back where he started. Democrats would mock his credulity and incompetence. The GOP would have little to defend. Then Kim could generously propose a meeting, where promises of ultimate disarmament could be traded for sanctions relief. And the president could return home, celebrating his statesmanship.
It is a plausible strategy, but a risky one. The timing has to be right, the president’s emotions have to be in check, the political battle has to be at the right stage. If something goes wrong, the results could be far different and more dangerous.
Imagine another two months of North Korean refusal to talk twinned with escalating insults directed at the president. Then an ICBM launch, with hints of more to come. At which point the president feels betrayed. Having personally embraced Kim, the president then personally feels the latter’s rejection. So Trump pens the opposite of a love letter to the Supreme Leader, with threats rather than concessions offered. To further increase the pressure, the North schedules a nuclear test. Democrats erupt with brutal criticism of the president, arguing that his weakness has triggered the latest crisis.
Then he imposes sanctions on whatever has not been prohibited, orders the “armada” to sail to waters off Korea, sends in B-52s and B-2s on nearby practice bombing runs, and looses an incendiary tweetstorm. The likely response would be a corresponding crescendo of North Korean threats, insults, and maneuvers, as a new cold war descends on the peninsula. And the president playing off the DPRK to demonstrate his resolve and prove that he is tougher than any of the Democrats and can be best trusted to confront threats against America.
There is a worse case, however. The president might consider limited military strikes since, as Sen. Lindsey Graham cheerfully observed, the war would be “over there” rather than “over here.” In fact, the president appears to be genuinely cautious and war-averse. However, Kim could come to fear that Washington was planning an attack to destroy the North’s nukes and decapitate its leadership, causing him to ponder the wisdom of seizing the military initiative. Even limited initial military strikes from either side likely would likely lead to general war. The consequences would be incalculable, despite Graham’s blithe dismissal of the possibility of mass death and destruction.
Of course, the future might prove far brighter. Kim might be swung over to disarmament. The two sides might reach a serious interim deal. Both leaders might decide that the status quo, an imperfect calm, is better than a return to conflict. Then negotiations could resume in the future, perhaps under a new administration. The Chinese might be able to midwife a satisfactory accommodation between Pyongyang and Washington. There might even be changes in the North, leading to a radically different atmosphere. All are possible, but none seem likely.
Chances are far greater that next year policymakers will be discussing the renewed challenge posed by the DPRK and wondering how the president, either current or incoming, will address the challenge. Count it a success if peace still reigns. And hope for a return to diplomacy, with more successful negotiations this time.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and the co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.