THIS YEAR HAS BEEN ONE of the most tumultuous in recent relations between the U.S. and North Korea, following a series of threats and warnings from both sides, optimism at the prospect of talks and discouragement when they collapsed.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has issued an apparent ultimatum that the U.S. must present a satisfactory plan forward or he will retaliate with yet-unspecified action. He had menacingly pledged a “Christmas gift” for America.
President Donald Trump, who suggested Tuesday that the gift could be a “nice present … a beautiful vase instead of a missile test” has fired back that North Korea knows better than to escalate military tensions on the Korean peninsula going into an election year in 2020. Christmas came and went with no sign of hostile North Korean action.
Perhaps the only thing that’s certain about interactions between the two countries is that next year will be even more eventful.
Here are five things to watch going into 2020:
The New Year’s Eve Deadline
Kim Jong Un in April gave the United States an ominous deadline to create “a new way” for relations with North Korea to the reclusive leader’s satisfaction.
“We will be patient and wait till the end of this year to see whether the United States makes a courageous decision or not,” Kim told the Supreme People’s Assembly gathering on April 12.
The threat came to define U.S.-North Korean relations this year and cast a pall over subsequent negotiations. And yet a week before the clock expires, it was still not apparent the U.S. fully understood what would satisfy Pyongyang, and what – if any – action the mercurial leader was prepared to take.
Even those at the forefront of North Korea policy – led by chief envoy Steve Biegun, who earlier in December became the No. 2 at the State Department – do not appear to have a clear idea of what Kim Jong Un expects by Dec. 31.
“I don’t think there’s great sourcing and insight into what he’s actually thinking,” says Vikram Singh, a senior Pentagon official for Asian affairs during the Obama administration, now a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
When asked about Kim’s apparent intentions and specific requests of the U.S., senior military and diplomatic officials did not have clear answers.
“The thing he’s been articulating lately is the U.S. walk-back from its hostile policy, which is relatively undefined policy,” Navy Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said on the sidelines of a security conference in Halifax in November. “If he doesn’t feel satisfaction in the course of this calendar year, he’s going to choose ‘a new way.'”
Davidson acknowledged his response was based on open-source information, including Kim’s public remarks. Representatives of the departments of Defense and State declined to discuss the matter, saying they would have to wait until 2020.
An Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Test
North Korean Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Ri Thae Song issued an ominous warning in early December, indicating that a failure by the U.S. to restart negotiations to North Korea’s satisfaction will result in a “Christmas gift.” Though unspecific, top American military officials believe that could amount to an intercontinental ballistic missile test.
“Go back to May, and you’ve seen a series of short-range ballistic missile [tests], and … a long-range ballistic missile [is expected],” Air Force Gen. Charles Brown, the top officer for air operations in the Pacific region, told a group of reporters two weeks after the North Korean threat. “What I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile to be ‘the gift.'”
Such a test would represent a dramatic escalation in military tensions on the Korean peninsula and would likely force some sort of U.S. response. It would also further complicate already pressing U.S. concerns that prior tests have afforded Pyongyang the technical ability and strategic confidence to launch a weapon that could strike the continental United States.
Brown’s assessment – which, like Adm. Davidson he based off of open-source information and not classified intelligence – follows assertions from North Korea that it has conducted two “crucial tests” at rocket-launch sites in recent weeks.
And though Pyongyang has conducted multiple rocket launches and tests of short- and medium-range missiles in the last year – much to the disturbance of neighbors Japan and South Korea – Trump has repeatedly downplayed them, describing one such test in June as not “anything major.”
Among the most provocative North Korean responses to a U.S. failure to meet its deadline would be a new nuclear test – a move so escalatory that most analysts believe even Pyongyang might consider it too extreme. Its last nuclear test took place in September 2017, and Trump has touted the subsequent lull as evidence of Kim’s willingness to negotiate.
Yet the president issued a warning earlier this month, saying he believes his personal relationship with Kim forged from two high-profile summits in Vietnam and Singapore is strong enough to keep the North Korean from instigating a military escalation.
“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Trump tweeted. “He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore. 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.”
Analysts question whether Kim has any regard for U.S. democratic systems. However, were North Korea to perform some sort of military escalation it would likely take place on a date of national significance, as its past behavior has indicated.
Kim Jong Un’s birthday is on Jan. 8.
Fraying Relations With South Korea
Any calculation North Korea makes about its willingness to engage in military activity is at least indirectly tied to U.S. relations with South Korea, which have soured to the point of breaking in recent months.
Though almost 30,000 U.S. troops are based in South Korea on a series of military installations – a partnership routinely touted by U.S. commanders as among the most potent in the U.S. arsenal for domestic and international safety – the future of American support has come into question following Trump’s insistence the host country pay more.
South Korea in late December failed to reach a cost-sharing agreement with the U.S. before a year-end deadline, following Trump’s insistence that it pay 400 percent more for the right to host American troops. The demand, which has been met with intense criticism in South Korea, also follows assertions from American commanders that the U.S. presence there also deters a North Korean attack.
And it follows Trump’s orders to cease military exercises with South Korea, with the president mirroring North Korean talking points in describing them as overly expensive “war games.” Pentagon officials have said the pause has not yet affected the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces to partner together in the event of an actual military conflict. But experts believe such attrition is only a matter of time.
The government in Seoul under the leadership of Moon Jae-in is among the most open to rapprochement with its northern neighbors in recent history. Though he is openly eager for the U.S. and North Korea to improve relations, the new strain between Washington and Seoul leaves the future of the alliance uncertain – a key factor in whether Pyongyang believes it would benefit from military escalation.
A Spat Between Trump and Kim
The personal relationship Kim and Trump have forged since the American leader took office amounts to one of the most evident sources of stability that exists between the two countries. Many analysts also consider it the most likely chance of a genuine breakthrough in tensions between the two countries and a ratcheting down of international sanctions in return for North Korea’s denuclearization.
However, the threats and warnings that both sides have lobbed back and forth in recent weeks could just as easily upset whatever fragile relationship they may have forged.
Despite taking a hard line against what it considers American imperialism, Pyongyang likely sees this particular American leader to be their best, last hope – particularly as he enters an election year.
“They realize Trump is the best president they’ve had in quite a while to make any progress with,” says Charles Armstrong, a North Korea expert and professor at Columbia University. “A Democratic president would be less inclined to any major negotiations with them.”
And though Trump has touted warming relations with North Korea as among his signature foreign policy accomplishments, the current state of the relationship may prevent him from considering it a useful pursuit going into 2020.
“The president got a great deal of criticism last time over giving away too much to North Korea,” Armstrong says of prior summits with Kim, which in itself granted the kind of exposure and legitimacy the North Korean leader sought. “He may reconsider whether it would be helpful for his reelection process.”