As we get closer and closer to the new year, the anticipation of a major North Korean provocation is getting louder and louder. Korea analysts in the Beltway’s think-tank community have been pouring over satellite imagery to determine whether an abnormality is occurring at one of Kim Jong-un’s test facilities. The Pentagon is scouring intelligence and conducting reconnaissance flights over the Korean Peninsula, searching for any grain of evidence that the Kim regime is preparing a blockbuster event during (or immediately after) the holiday season. Thre are even some worries that an intermediate-range ballistic missile test over Japan is only a matter of time.
President Donald Trump’s diplomacy with the North is on incredibly shaky ground. As Professor Adian Foster-Carter of Leeds University wrote on the North Korea monitoring site 38 North, 2019 was a year of “Delays and Delusions, Taunts and Tests.” The talks between Trump and Kim that began with some promise and a torrent of rosy headlines 18 months ago have been stuck in the mud throughout the year. The period between the summit in Hanoi and the meeting at the DMZ in June was an unproductive stretch. It took nearly four months after Trump and Kim’s DMZ meet-and-greet before those discussions actually happened. And they finally did, the talks concluded in a huff after a single day.
Stephen Biegun, Trump’s North Korea envoy and new deputy secretary of state, was forced to make an end-of-year journey to South Korea, Japan, and China, where his calls to North Korean officials were left unanswered. On the surface, you certainly couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Kim Jong-un is no longer interested in talking with his pen pal in the White House.
Stalling negotiations and launching a holiday surprise in the form of another ICBM or nuclear test, however, are two entirely different things. The former is a part of the dance, a bid to enhance one’s leverage by pressuring the other side to come back to the table on your terms. The latter is a reckless move to tank the talks altogether, throwing the diplomatic baby out with the bathwater.