ICBMs or Negotiations: What Path Will North Korea Take?

Daniel R. DePetris

One can always hope and pray that the United States and North Korea both see the light of day and discover a way to break the diplomatic logjam before the New Year hits the calendar. But hope is not a policy—and by the looks of U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun’s unproductive, three-day trip to South Korea this week, Washington is staring at a diplomatic initiative struggling to sustain itself like a fish out of water. Biegun’s only public remarks in Seoul were used to hammer the North Koreans for obstructing the process, a message that could do more harm than good in moving Kim Jong-un back into cooperation mode.

It’s, therefore, an urgent necessity for national security officials across the inter-agency, including the intelligence community, to begin planning for what could happen next year. Will President Trump’s diplomatic gamble with the North survive the turn of the new year? Is Kim even interested in discussing anything with the United States anymore? Have we gotten to the point where U.S.-North Korea relations are destined for permanent hostility? Is Washington prepared to swallow its pride and set its sights on more achievable objectives, throwing denuclearization to the wind?

Predicting what Kim Jing-un will do a month from now, let alone a year from now is pretty much asking for failure. But predictions need to be made regardless; the worst thing a U.S. president can do is get caught with his pants down. So in the spirit of the prediction business and with those usual caveats in mind, here are three paths Kim Jong-un may decide to take if negotiations don’t magically resume before New Years Day.

1. No More Bilateral Talks?: Kim Jong-un’s tolerance for diplomacy has been challenged throughout 2019 by a mixture of factors, including unrealistic expectations of what Trump would offer and the hangover that has persisted after his disappointing second summit meeting in Hanoi. The North Korean leader sees less of a reason to abide by his unilateral moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests in this environment and has threatened through his subordinates that the testing freeze could be lifted if Washington doesn’t begin making moves to improve the bilateral relationship. 13 rounds of ballistic missile tests later, “dotard” is once again reappearing in the Kim regime’s vocabulary.

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