Trump and North Korea: Why 2020 Could Look Like 2017

Daniel L. Davis

President Donald Trump has boasted he alone was able to bring reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table and has often cited the cessation of long-range missile and nuclear warhead testing as evidence of his success. North Korea, however, says it has been “betrayed” by Trump due to the lack of negotiations progress—and if there is no change in U.S. policy by the end of the year, then the Hermit Kingdom will no longer feel bound to its moratorium on testing. 

In other words, if Trump doesn’t quickly reengage with North Korea diplomatically, then the year 2020 could end up looking a lot like the days of “fire and fury” in 2017 and the risk of destructive war will again rear its ugly head.

There is still time, however, to avoid unnecessary escalation. Last Thursday, North Korean state media announced that the United States has proposed a new round of working-level negotiations in December. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper followed up on Friday saying the United States would be “flexible” on future joint military exercises with South Korea—exercises the North views as antagonistic—if that facilitates the diplomatic track. 

The use of joint drills is not only deterrence, Esper said, but also “to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on the diplomatic front.” Following Trump’s historic summit with Kim in Singapore in 2018, it appeared that the two sides were moving towards an agreement that could increase the chance for peace between the two sides that are still technically still at war. The big chance for a substantive breakthrough was lost, however, when talks deteriorated at the Hanoi summit earlier this year.

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