Editor's Note: Looking for more perspectives on North Korea? Check out all 27 expert predictions on North Korea in 2019 here.
Korea, at the moment, is a land of peace and tranquility. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un is not torching the sky with missiles or shaking the earth with thermonuclear devices. South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to formally end the Korean War, and President Donald Trump says he is in “love” with Kim.
If the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were a normal state, all of these developments would inevitably lead to a good outcome of one sort or another in 2019.
But, of course, the regime is not normal. It is, among other things, militant, and its militancy poses two main risks.
First, its militancy prevents Kim from making the strategic decision to give up his most destructive weapons.
Trump’s policy, however, is premised on such a decision. At the Ottawa G-7, just before the historic June 12 summit in Singapore, the American president said he wanted to give Kim a “one-time shot.” At the summit, the North Korean leader promised “the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Trump is still waiting. The North Koreans since then have continued upgrading their production facilities and never stopped churning out fissile material.
At some point, Trump will surely switch from words of endearment to harsh ones—and from generous policies to tough ones—because he cannot allow the North Koreans to delay, to prevaricate, and to continue building the world’s most dangerous weapons. Expect high drama in 2019.
Second, Kim’s militancy drives him to take over South Korea. Indeed, extending his rule over the South is key to maintaining his rule in the North.
The Korean peninsula is the world’s most interesting political experiment with two Koreas, one populated with rich Koreans and the other with poor ones.
The poor Koreans can accept their destitution if they believe they’re sacrificing for an important objective. That objective, they have been told, is the extension of Kim’s juche system to the entire peninsula.
Kim, in short, needs to show progress in achieving that goal, so the peninsula is inherently unstable.
And now it is more so. Moon craves unification and looks willing to achieve it more or less on Pyongyang’s terms. Kim has recently been talking about “final victory,” code for the elimination of the South Korean state, so it appears he thinks his objective is within sight.
Next year is when the North’s militancy disrupts peace—again.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.