Kim Jong-un is back, with all the subtlety of a Christmas tree lighting, to let us know that he and his nuclear weapons are planning to take another turn in the spotlight in 2020. While we were focused on other horrors, like tedious impeachment hearings and the Cats movie, the Pyongyang regime has been engaged in its own warped holiday preparations.
It started back in October, when Kim was photographed riding a white horse up a snowy mountain. To American eyes, it looked like the dictator was posing for a particularly cheesy holiday card. But as Vox explained, Mount Paektu has “great symbolic and sacred meaning in North Korea.” Kim was showing his people that their leader is strong and determined, and an accompanying statement announced that they could look forward to “a great operation that will strike the world with wonder again.”
North Korean and U.S. negotiators have not met since around the time the photos were released in October, and communications have grown increasingly sour since then. Chief U.S. negotiator Stephen Biegun (who was just confirmed as deputy secretary of State) made a December trip to the peninsula and waited several days in South Korea hoping for a meeting in vain. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has clearly continued to make progress both in accumulating material for nuclear weapons and in improving and testing missile systems that can threaten the continental U.S. as well as Hawaii and our ally Japan (along with the U.S. troops stationed there).
The North has a history of describing its missile tests as “gifts” to the U.S., so when, in early December, a senior North Korean official declared, “It is entirely up to the U.S. what gift it will select to get,” some analysts braced for a December 25 announcement or test.
The Trump administration is usually — and fairly — criticized for a lack of finesse in foreign affairs. But it has actually worked hard recently to avoid another buildup of alarming fire-and-fury rhetoric and to draw a subtle red line that would let Kim show off some of his hardware to buttress his standing at home without drawing a massive reaction from the U.S.
If that approach were linked to a strategy for what to do next, it wouldn’t be a bad start. Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe the administration has a plan and a pretty good reason to think President Trump himself doesn’t have one. In his own words, “It may work out, it may not … I hope [Kim] lives up to the agreement, but we’re going to find out.”
Trump may think that’s fine, but it remains the case that the North now has material for several dozen weapons, the ability to target Americans with them, and the will to threaten Washington in order to keep military pressure from the U.S., Japan, and South Korea at bay while providing long-promised economic gains at home.
While Trump pursued his failed romance with Kim in the past year, he and his team tore down a generation of worldwide partnerships with other countries to discourage nuclear proliferation. Trump tossed out decades-old arms-control treaties with Russia, which had signaled to the rest of the world that the two largest nuclear powers were serious about downsizing their arsenals. His go-it-alone strategy on North Korea upended a diplomatic tradition that had dated back to George H.W. Bush. And, of course, he threw out a nuclear deal with Iran that achieved exactly the kind of tangible but limited ends his team says it wants to pursue with Pyongyang. On both North Korea and Iran, major players like Europe, Russia, and China had gone along with U.S. strategy because none of them wanted to see new nuclear powers.
Now, though, Russia and China have teamed up to introduce a U.N. Security Council resolution that would loosen sanctions on North Korea — putting U.S. allies in an awkward position, to say the least. China is not living up to the sanctions as they currently exist, and no deal with Pyongyang, regardless of who’s leading the U.S., will succeed without Beijing’s acquiescence, if not its active participation.
We can expect more such embarrassments at the U.N. in 2020 and more blocking from China and Russia at every turn — because they have nothing to lose by doing so. This is all a recipe for a run-up in tensions, with U.S. interests arrayed against North Korean missiles, Chinese trade retaliation, and Russian irregular forces interacting in complex, not always visible or predictable ways. Happy New Year to us.
You’d never know it, but there is a consensus — agreed to by everyone from Trump’s North Korea envoy, Biegun, to eight senior Senate Democrats who wrote a letter to the president this month — on the broad outlines of what a path forward with the Kim regime might look like. Nuclear specialists and Korea experts have proposed a number of steps toward a phased agreement in which North Korea would do some combination of freezing its nuclear tests and opening itself to at least some international verification. In exchange, North Korea would get some U.S. concessions on military exercises (which Trump is canceling anyway) and economic sanctions (the ones China and Russia are violating).
But Kim seems to have calculated that he can get sanctions relief without having to give Trump anything at all. Republicans and Democrats could play bad cop to Trump’s erratic cop and either make some progress on the North Korea situation in 2020 or set the table for another president to make a deal in 2021.
True, that would require overcoming the temptation to score partisan points and acknowledging that no deal is going to make Kim’s nuclear weapons go away — hard pills to swallow for Democrats and Republicans alike. But if your alternative for 2020 is believing in the Trump-Kim “personal relationship,” well … let me know how Santa treated you.