As 2019 draws to a close, tensions start to rise on the Korean Peninsula, and it is expected that the period of de-escalation in the region won’t continue into 2020.
During the whole month of November, North Korean representatives were urging the United States to change its approach, warning that “the window narrows.” The United States made some concessions, but evident half-measures did not suit Pyongyang. December unfolds amid some very interesting events.
Among these events is the next round of the war of words that hints at the return of the “presidential rap battles.” First, Trump called Kim Jong-un a “Rocket Man” and said that, with all due respect to the leadership of North Korea, the United States is ready for military retaliation if it proves necessary. In response, the head of the DPRK General Staff Department said that, in the event of a military conflict, the US would have to face much more than it bargained for. Just a day later, First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui hinted, not so subtly, that if Trump had misspoken, it was one thing, but if his statement was outright trolling, North Korean officials have all the right to call him a “senile dotard.” Choe noted that the Supreme Leader continues to remain silent about Trump and still has hopes for his prudence.
And so the war of words goes on (without Kim Jong-un’s participation so far). There’s no need to cite every quote, but it does seem worth noting that the suggestion for the US to change tactics before the year end has been repeatedly expressed with different intonations NINETEEN TIMES, as Pyongyang grows increasingly impatient.
American attempts to reach out so far remain unanswered. Stephen Biegun, recently promoted to Deputy Secretary of State, announced during a visit to Seoul that the North can contact him, but what is permitted to the president (and has led to the meeting in Panmunjom) is forbidden to his assistants.
Moreover, all this happened against the background of the scheduled annual UN Security Council Resolution, where the DPRK was branded as a human rights violator for the fifteenth time. At the same time, another one of Russia and China’s attempt to submit a proposal for easing sanctions to the Security Council proved unsuccessful (for now?).
The DPRK is often called unpredictable. However, it was way back in April at a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly when Kim Jong-un announced that, by the beginning of 2020, the situation could change quite drastically. Nevertheless, the statement about the US “deciding for themselves what kind of gift it will receive from us for Christmas” caused a stir among experts, especially in connection with satellite images of the Tonghanni area, where two “important tests” were conducted. The nature of these tests was described by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in a very evasive manner. The most popular version is that it was a new engine for ICBMs, most likely running on solid fuel.
Pessimists think that the North Korean leader may initiate a new launch of an ICBM or even test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, if only because the Punggye-ri test site is not functioning. Optimists believe that it won’t be an ICMB that is launched, but rather a civilian satellite (on a modernized missile). Since every country has the right to peaceful space exploration, the situation will be ambiguous, and the reaction to the launch will determine the future course.
Realists, on the other hand, draw attention to the fact that the moratorium on launching ICBMs and nuclear tests has not been solidified by a legally binding document. Consequently, Kim Jong-un can take back his words at any time, and this won’t be a violation of any signed agreements.
The upcoming December Plenum of the Central Committee of the WPK seems to be more interesting and of greater importance, as the country’s foreign policy objectives for the near future will be on the agenda. No less significant is the recent meeting of the military leadership, during which Kim Jong-un spoke on “important organizational issues.” It is notable that this time, Kim Jong-un actually brings issues for general discussion instead of making decisions on his own, only announcing them during his New Year’s speech. In any case, since the meeting in Hanoi it’s been rumored that the traditionalist mood in the DPRK leadership remains strong, and Kim Jong-un received petitions not to make concessions to the US.
It seems that Kim Jong-un is destroying the relationship between himself and Trump. But because this is happening in the midst of another attempt to impeach the latter, Pyongyang can expect Trump to lose the upcoming 2020 elections. This means that the next president, whoever he or she may be, is unlikely to go on “making irresponsible concessions to the tyrannical regime.” Therefore, even if Kim Jong-un and Trump reach some agreements next year, they will most likely be canceled despite the fact that they will demand irreversible actions from the DPRK. Consequently, while everything that the United States can offer in return is viewed as reversible.
And now Trump’s hands are tied; what had been done so far wasn’t perceived by the DPRK as concessions, and because of the impeachment process, Trump can’t even risk weakening sanctions. Thus, silence is the answer when American or South Korean experts are faced with the following question: “If the DPRK is obliged to fulfill everything that it promised in Hanoi, but only in exchange for counter steps, what shape can these steps even take?”
Nevertheless, for now Pyongyang continues to be elusive, sometimes emphasizing that Plan B does not imply a return to the situation of 2017. Indeed, the Christmas present will be chosen not by Pyongyang, but by Washington, which theoretically still has time to, if not change, then at least adjust its approach.
Of course, it will be difficult, because unlike Kim Jong-un, Trump must keep track of the state of US domestic politics. He can try to increase his rating by reaching some kind of agreement with the DPRK, but the problem is that both sides must move towards consensus.
And of course, Moscow and Beijing play an important role in this process as well. The status quo is beneficial for them, so on the one hand, they seek to loosen sanctions, and on the other, they try to persuade Kim Jong-un not to “aggravate” the situation. Therefore, it is quite possible that the extension of the moratorium will be the good version of Pyongyang’s present. This won’t prevent Kim Jong-un from further developing the RMD and MLRS, which North Korea did not promise to discontinue.
It seems that both sides are preparing for the worst. It’s worth mentioning here that in December 2019, several important production facilities and infrastructure projects were built in North Korea in order to strengthen the national economy in anticipation of tightened sanctions after the disruption of dialogue. In case of sanctions turning into a full-fledged economic blockade, the constructed power plants, nurseries, greenhouse complexes, potato flour and fertilizer factories, a pilot project to develop infrastructure in remote regions – all this will be aimed at improving the quality of life of North Korean citizens not only in Pyongyang, but in the provinces as well.
With Christmas right around the corner, no matter how events unfold, analysts will be intrigued.
Like the DPRK, we hope for the best but are prepared for the more disappointing outcome.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.