While Washington has its collective gaze fixed on all things impeachment, events on the Korean Peninsula—specifically, the fate of U.S.-North Korea relations—seem to be headed towards another potential nuclear showdown in early 2020.
None of this should be a shock. In fact, North Korea could not have made its position any clearer, repeating the same point over and over again. Pyongyang has been threatening for nearly a year now to move towards a “new path“ or “new way“ in its dealings with Washington. That most likely means restarting long-range missile programs—think ICBMs—or even a nuclear weapons test if new concessions are not made by the end of this year. In fact, North Korea is now upping the ante, demanding another summit, also by the end of the year.
So how has Washington responded to such veiled threats? While American officials both publicly and in private continue to assert they are ready to take “bold steps” and offer “creative ideas” to solve the long-standing stalemate over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, there seems to have been little movement away from Washington’s official position: that North Korea must give up large sections of its nuclear weapons program—if not the entire thing—before it will get any sanctions relief. In fact, during recent failed U.S.-North Korea working level talks in Stockholm, a senior South Korean government official based in Seoul described to me Washington’s approach during the Stockholm talks—and over the last few months—as “unchanging and unimaginative.” North Korea seems to agree.
But again, no one should be shocked. To be fair, the Trump administration’s position today reminds me of what happened during the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi earlier in the year. While Pyongyang was willing to make concessions on its nuclear program, Washington was in no mood to barter on a compromise, even when North Korea seemed willing to enhance its offer—something that wasn’t widely reported on. President Trump, facing heat from Democrats on Capitol Hill thanks to his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, testifying at the same time as the summit, had to play it cautiously in his dealings with the Kim regime. He likely concluded that he could either go for a big deal—full denuclearization for full sanctions relief—or walk and project strength. In fact, Trump seemed to have admitted as much on Twitter. Why risk giving the Democrats, Never Trumpers, and Republican hawks even more ammunition when things back home were so uncertain? Why take such a risk when North Korea hasn’t exactly kept its word in the past?
This is where we get a lesson in North Korean domestic politics. Because even dictators like Kim Jong-un have political audiences back home that they must consider in their decision making.
Kim, making that long trip by train to meet with Trump, was clearly taking a political risk. In fact, I have been told by multiple senior South Korean and U.S. officials that Kim would not even allow his working-level negotiators to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program in the lead-up to Hanoi. Kim instead told them to relay the message that he would deliver a “big gift” to Trump personally, causing the Trump administration at one point to reconsider attending the summit. No doubt there were hardliners in Pyongyang who warned Kim of the dangers of such a meeting, too, and how he would perhaps be weakened if he came back with no deal. For Trump to simply walk out on Kim, a man considered akin to a god by his own countryman, was clearly a blow to his prestige at a time when sanctions were taking their toll and when even food seemed to be in short supply. No wonder Kim is now taking a carefully calibrated harder line, testing missiles of growing power and technological sophistication, while at the same time offering talks if Trump meets certain conditions.
Here is where things get dangerous. If nothing changes between now and the end of the year, the only question is how North Korea will escalate the situation. My guess would be a test of a weapon that raises tensions, though not to a crisis level, like test firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that could target Guam or other U.S. bases in Asia. While that would violate pledges to not test advanced longer-range missiles—U.S. officials have told me that Kim told Trump he would not test IRBMs as well as ICBMs—it might not lead to the administration responding aggressively, as such missiles can’t reach the U.S. homeland.
Ideally, this could allow Kim to save face and show maximum strength back home without sparking a crisis. It could also allow impeachment proceedings to finish.
In fact, this is where a breakthrough really could occur. Team Trump will surely want to reset media attention away from domestic political challenges—provided he’s acquitted in the Senate, which right now seems certain—and claim a big win before the 2020 presidential election goes into high gear. Why not make one last try at an agreement with Pyongyang? The outlines of such a deal have been clear for almost a year: a peace declaration ending the Korean War, liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington to foster better communication, and some sort of first step on North Korea’s denuclearization for sanctions relief. Imagine Trump rallies in the summer of 2020 with supporters screaming “Nobel!” “Nobel”!
But all it would take is one ICBM, one provocation that angers Trump, to turn 2020 into 2017. And as more and more accounts of those dark days come to light, it is clear we were lucky threats of nuclear war did not become reality. We might not be so fortunate next time around.