Among the many holiday greetings received at the White House in the last few weeks was another missive from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. President Trump described it as a “great letter,” and for now, we’ll have to take his word for it; while he’s reportedly taken to showing off Kim’s correspondence to visitors, he’s yet to share the letter’s contents. But Kim had some public messages for the U.S. in his address on New Year’s Day, and they were pretty straightforward. Basically, if Trump officials want to keep claiming diplomacy with the North as one of their major successes, they’re going to have to work for it. And no, North Korea isn’t giving up its nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang mostly stayed out of U.S. headlines in the final months of 2018, but it has been busy. North Korea stiffed U.S. negotiators while taking big symbolic steps with South Korea and rebuilding relationships with Russia and China, undercutting what’s left of U.N. sanctions.
Washington’s frustration mounted steadily, as North Korean interlocutors delayed meeting with U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun and even canceled a scheduled trip to the United States just after the 2018 midterms. Administration officials quietly backed away from their optimism for doing a deal around the North’s nuclear program. Who remembers now, as Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams points out, that back in June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said such an agreement could be mostly wrapped up before the 2020 elections?
One person who hasn’t seemed concerned is President Trump himself. Even as experts pointed out that no disarmament was happening, Trump continued to tout the quality and depth of what he and Kim had built throughout 2018. Who could forget his “we fell in love” riff at a fall campaign rally, after Kim wrote him “beautiful letters”? He went in a different direction on January 2, telling reporters that, had he not sat down with Kim, we would have a “big fat war in Asia.”
Unfortunately for Trump, Kim depicts their relationship in less passionate terms. His New Year’s address doubled down on a point he’s repeated since their June meeting in Singapore: The North sees nuclear disarmament as a process it will undertake in conjunction with Washington pulling back the U.S.’s ability to use nuclear weapons and conduct large-scale military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. And although Kim called the U.S.–North Korea summit and subsequent meetings with South Korean president Moon Jae-in an “undeletable” achievement, Kim wanted the world to know that he has options: “We even might find ourselves in a situation where we have no other choice but to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula,” he said. Observers read that as a threat to resume nuclear testing and/or heighten efforts to play Washington against Beijing, which Kim is due to visit again early in the new year.
Kim is already causing discord between the U.S. and its longtime ally South Korea. The Moon government has moved steadily ahead on symbolic gestures like border summits and train trips into the North, and would like to go further with economic assistance and extending enterprise zones, which would inject money and technology into the North’s economy. However, much of Trump’s Cabinet wanted to keep up economic pressure on the North, and resume military exercises with the South.
Of course, Trump has done a pretty good job of upsetting U.S.–South Korean ties all by himself; negotiations on how the two countries share the costs of the U.S. troop presence on the Korean Peninsula broke down when Trump reportedly demanded the Koreans double the $836 million they currently pay per year. Right now there is no agreement in place. Funds to pay the South Korean workers supporting U.S. forces run out in April, and unlike the U.S. government, Seoul does not have a tradition of shutdowns and subsequent worker paybacks. Meanwhile, Trump’s tariffs are pinching Korean manufacturing.
Kim and his North Korean predecessors have a long tradition of using their nuclear program to bring attention back to the peninsula, and playing the U.S., China, and Russia off each other skillfully to get what they want. Since the Singapore Summit, Washington’s default position has been to give Kim a little and wait to see what he would offer; instead, Kim seems to be seizing the initiative, saying what else will you give me to keep this beautiful friendship flowing?
That presents a dilemma for Trump and his team: They can either admit that they would take some kind of deal that accepts a nuclear-armed North Korea (maybe even giving up some chips for such an agreement), or stick to the goal of full denuclearization and see tensions rise again. This would be a difficult call even for an administration that wasn’t working with an acting Defense secretary, acting U.N. ambassador, and acting assistant secretary of State for East Asia.
And this quandry is bigger than the Trump administration. In the months since the Singapore Summit, more and more North Korea experts and nuclear policy wonks have been willing to say publicly, if grudgingly, that the North’s nuclear program is here to stay. The U.S. will have to live with a relationship based on deterrence, they say, and settle for some limits and intelligence on the North’s nuclear program. Yet Washington is strewn with politicians in both parties who have said for years that North Korea must not become a nuclear power, full stop — never mind that it’s been one for quite some time. As we head into the 2020 election, Democratic candidates will have to come up with their own vision for relations with North Korea.
All of that means you should expect more fire and fury over North Korea, or at least sparks and tweets, in 2019. And not all of them will be aimed outside Washington.