North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump have signaled their affection for each other so regularly it might be easy to miss rising fears that the head-spinning diplomatic engagement of the past two years is falling apart.
Pyongyang has issued increasingly dire warnings to Washington to mind a year-end deadline to offer some new initiative to settle the nations’ decades-long nuclear standoff.
Failure could mean a return to the barrage of powerful North Korean weapons tests that marked 2017 as one of the most fraught years in a relationship that has often been defined by bloodshed, deep mistrust and regular threats.
As the deadline approaches, and as the North’s propaganda machine cranks up its warnings, here’s a look at how high-stakes diplomatic wrangling in one of the most dangerous corners of the world might play out:
THE DEADLINE: HOW SERIOUS IS IT?
North Korea has previously issued deadlines it doesn’t follow through on as a way to try to get what it wants in negotiations.
But despite the usual skepticism, there are signs that Pyongyang means business this time.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency has reported that Seoul is taking the year-end deadline seriously and is working on “contingency plans” with the United States, which has been trying, and failing, to get North Korea back into serious talks before time runs out.
The chief U.S. nuclear negotiator warned recently that the North could turn to provocations if the deadline is unmet.
When diplomacy broke down at a Trump-Kim summit last February after North Korea didn’t win broad sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities, it began staging a series of short-range weapons tests. On Thursday, North Korea fired two projectiles likely from a multiple rocket launcher, South Korea’s military said, the first such major weapons test in about a month.
The North has also suggested it will not hold another summit with Trump unless it gets something substantial for its efforts.
“The U.S. only seeks to earn time, pretending it has made progress in settling the issue of the Korean Peninsula,” Kim Kye Gwan, a senior adviser to the North’s foreign ministry, said last week. “As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can boast of.”
A RETURN TO ICBMs?
If North Korea makes the determination that it can win little from Trump — amid congressional impeachment proceedings and 2020 presidential election jockeying — it might return to the nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests that made 2017 such a dangerous year.
Some outside observers, however, believe that Kim, despite his frustration with the Trump administration, has yet to give up on negotiations that have won a level of U.S. engagement that has eluded North Korean leaders for decades.
“As we enter 2020, the strategic window to make some kind of compromise with the U.S. will close rapidly, making sanctions more permanent” and hampering Kim’s promise of economic relief for his people, according to Stephen Robert Nagy, an Asia expert and professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo.
Kim may also try to further bolster ties and secure aid from China — North Korea’s most important ally and economic lifeline — and Russia while testing shorter-range missiles, according to Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul.
But more powerful tests aren’t out of the question.
If the North decides to give up on talks and launches an ICBM, for instance, it will most likely be at “a time that would inflict the biggest pain on Trump,” said Go Myong-Hyun, an analyst at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Sue Mi Terry, a former senior CIA analyst on Korea, wrote earlier this month that amid unrealistic expectations in Pyongyang, the U.S. might have “only two bad options” — give the North massive sanctions relief up front in return for little in return, or watch Pyongyang return to more powerful weapons tests after the expiration of the year-end deadline.
“The North Koreans’ plan is to stall: show up, talk, break off talks,” Terry wrote. “And while they play this game, they are improving and expanding their nuclear and missile programs.”
Christopher Hill, chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea in the George W. Bush administration, said he feels that Pyongyang is “going to really press (Trump) to get something by the end of the year.”
“And if the Trump administration holds firm, then they’re going to have to recalibrate. And they will recalibrate, because they know they need Trump,” Hill said.
Moon Jae-in, the liberal South Korean president who has held summits with Kim and who yearns for deeper engagement, might be the last best hope for diplomacy, according to Robert Kelly, a Koreas expert at South Korea’s Pusan National University.
Moon, Kelly wrote, must strike “a deal which re-engages Trump’s interest at a busy time for him and finally pulls a concession out of the North which is meaningful enough to silence the growing chorus of conservative criticism in Seoul and Washington, yet simultaneously offers North Korea enough to halt its countdown.”
But, Kelly added, “it is unclear if Moon — or anyone — can thread such a narrow needle.”