Trump careens toward a Christmas crisis with North Korea

By Nahal Toosi

President Donald Trump is pulling out all the stops to convince North Korea to return to nuclear talks – delaying military exercises, ambushing efforts to highlight the regime’s human rights abuses and sending a top envoy to the region to reassure jittery allies.

Democrats are calling on Trump to stick to diplomacy and even strive for a limited interim agreement, while lawmakers in both parties want the White House to be more transparent about what it knows about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, however, shows no sign of restarting the talks. Instead, his regime has promised the U.S. an ominous “Christmas gift” and is once again directly insulting Trump as a “dotard” and “erratic.” Kim has set a year-end deadline for the U.S. to make concessions, notably lifting economic sanctions that China and Russia also are agitating to ease.

The tensions threaten to blight Trump’s foreign policy record as his 2020 reelection bid shifts into full gear. Upon entering office, he vowed that North Korea wouldn't develop an intercontinental ballistic missile on his watch, only to stand by as Kim presided over multiple defiant tests of his new capabilities. Now, some close observers of North Korea say Kim may be using Trump’s intense focus on his re-election next November as leverage to pressure him into lifting sanctions and striking a deal that favors Pyongyang.

Given that Trump has just been impeached, Kim may even view him as even more susceptible to exploitation.

“Tactically, the election plays a role and the whole impeachment process plays a role,” said Jung Pak, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer now with the Brookings Institution. “Kim probably sees Trump as being hemmed in domestically and more desperate for a deal.”

This past week, Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, visited U.S. allies Japan and South Korea to assure them of America’s continued commitment to their safety and to ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Biegun also traveled to Beijing to talk to Chinese officials about their role in coaxing Kim to back down.

While in South Korea, Biegun urged North Korea to jump-start negotiations, which have gone nowhere since Trump and Kim held a truncated February summit in Vietnam.

"Let's get this done. We are here and you know how to reach us," Biegun said.

Biegun said the U.S. is well aware of North Korea’s plans for a “Christmas gift,” which analysts and officials say could range from a space satellite launch to an ICBM test. But Biegun also said the U.S. won’t put a time limit on negotiations as Kim appears to have done.

“Let me be absolutely clear: The United States does not have a deadline,” he said.

Biegun did not manage to secure a session with North Korean officials – at least not one publicly announced. An East Asian diplomat following the situation said a Biegun-North Korea meeting would have been be a key indicator of progress for the U.S.

“Beijing and Pyongyang are only a 2-hour flight distance,” the diplomat noted.

Trump, meanwhile, appears to view Election Day as a pseudo-deadline of his own when it comes to North Korea. The president has continued his attempts to curry favor with Kim by personally praising him while simultaneously warning him not to take things too far.

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in June.

“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Trump tweeted Dec. 8. “He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November. North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearize as promised.”

The tweet – an extraordinary appeal to an adversary that regularly threatens to incinerate U.S. cities – didn’t appear to have the intended effect. North Korean officials responded by calling Trump “heedless and erratic” and reprising their past insinuations that he may be going senile. They also said his tweets were “corroboration that he feels fear.”

The direct insults were striking because during much of the Trump-Kim romance – Trump once said the pair “fell in love” – Kim and his functionaries avoided criticizing the U.S. president himself, even though they were willing to attack some of his aides.

Trump and Kim have met face-to-face three times: at a historic summit in Singapore in June 2018; in Hanoi in February; and along the North Korean-South Korean border in June.

While the two signed a vague joint statement on denuclearization in Singapore, the relationship stumbled in Vietnam. There, Trump refused to agree to lift numerous U.S. sanctions on North Korea in exchange for what U.S. officials said were limited curbs on its nuclear program. The summit ended early, without a clear plan for the next step. Since then, despite Trump and Biegun’s appeals, and despite the June meeting, there’s been little progress.

North Korea has repeatedly warned of a year-end deadline for Trump to offer concessions, presumed to include lifting sanctions. Since May, North Korea has also started once again testing missiles, which it had stopped doing while the Trump-Kim diplomacy was going well.

Trump has downplayed the recent tests because they involve short-range projectiles that don’t threaten the continental United States, though they've alarmed U.S. allies. If North Korea’s “Christmas gift” turns out to be a long-range missile test or even a nuclear test – the last one of which it conducted in 2017 – that would raise pressure on Trump to recalibrate.

“Trump will be forced to act and act in a strong way,” predicted Joseph Yun, a former U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy.

Concessions or enabling peace?

Trump and his aides have taken several, norm-shattering steps to end the decades-old, seemingly intractable U.S. conflict with North Korea. That includes having Trump become the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader and the first to set foot on North Korean soil.

Trump also has cancelled joint military exercises with regional allies, which he often calls “war games,” to help sweeten incentives for Pyongyang to talk.

Just last month, the Pentagon said the U.S. and South Korea were postponing a joint aerial military exercise in an act of goodwill toward North Korea. And Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended the reduced joint exercises as a way to “enable peace.”

North Korean officials have reacted coldly, however, accusing the U.S. of continued hostility.

The U.S. relationship with South Korea has been damaged as Trump seeks to force Seoul to pay significantly more for the presence of U.S. troops in the country. Some reports have put Trump’s demand at an increase of 400 percent, bringing the cost to $4.7 billion, a figure that has rattled his own advisers. Talks on the issue this week failed to achieve a deal.

The Trump administration, determined to salvage the nuclear talks with Pyongyang, also is reported to have scuttled efforts at the United Nations to hold a Security Council meeting on human rights abuses in North Korea.

Trump once went to great lengths to highlight atrocities by Kim’s totalitarian regime; but since the pair began corresponding and meeting, the U.S. president has gone mute on that topic.

On the international front, the Trump administration is encountering growing impatience with its tactics toward North Korea. Russia and China, both U.S. adversaries that are often skeptical of efforts to pressure North Korea, are calling for an easing of the U.S. sanctions.

While neither Moscow nor Beijing is eager for North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons, both say they are wary of a possible humanitarian crisis in the country. Should Kim’s regime teeter or fall, either could spark a refugee crisis and regional instability that would affect China and arguably Russia more directly than the United States.

In a visit earlier this month to Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov panned U.S. suggestions that sanctions will be lifted only after North Korea gives up its nuclear program.

"You cannot demand North Korea to do everything and right now and only then go back to ensuring its security and lifting the sanctions and the rest of all of it,” Lavrov said, adding that North Korea has “absolutely legitimate economic and humanitarian needs.”

There is growing concern among Democrats that the Trump administration does not have a solid strategy – and that it’s trying to hide details about the true situation in North Korea.

in a letter dated Wednesday, Senate Democrats urged the president to emphasize diplomacy and pursue, as a first step, an interim agreement with Pyongyang that freezes its nuclear program. They also pushed Trump to avoid a return to the “fire and fury” language he used against North Korea early in his term.

“We also urge you to take every necessary measure to deepen and strengthen our alliances with [South] Korea and Japan, as well as our other regional partners,” wrote the senators, among them Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

North Korea also features prominently in the latest National Defense Authorization Act.

In a joint explanatory statement on the final version of the bill, which Trump signed Friday, lawmakers from both parties expressed concern about White House foot-dragging when it comes to sharing information on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. They pointed out that the Trump administration was more than 300 days late in recently submitting a report to Congress on that topic.

“The administration’s reluctance to share information with Congress on North Korea severely impairs the Congress’s ability to evaluate the national security threat posed by North Korea on behalf of the American people,” said Monica Matoush, a Democratic spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee. “We will continue to push to ensure Congress is able to effectively meet its constitutional responsibilities.”

A Republican spokesperson for the Senate Armed Services Committee said it “remains committed to providing strong oversight concerning U.S. policy toward a North Korea.”
The White House declined to comment for this story.

One open question is how Biegun’s role on North Korea will change in the coming months as he takes on new duties. On Thursday, he was confirmed as the new deputy secretary of State. The current deputy, John Sullivan, will take over as U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Given the possibility that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may run for Senate from Kansas, there’s also a chance that Biegun may soon have to serve as acting secretary of State.

For now, at least, Biegun is expected to keep the North Korea portfolio even as he serves as Pompeo’s deputy. Would his higher rank mean that the North Koreans are more inclined to engage with Biegun, whom they’ve largely shunned?

Some analysts are skeptical. After all, Kim has access to Trump.

“I don’t think we should expect any changes from North Korea because Biegun got promoted,” Pak said. “They don’t need another person with a higher title. They have the president.”

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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