A Vase or a Missile? North Korea’s Christmas Surprise

Christmas passed without the threatened “Christmas gift” from North Korea. President Trump quipped while on holiday in Mar-a-Lago that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might send him a “beautiful vase” rather than a missile as a gift. In either event, the two years of summit diplomacy and Trump-Kim “bromance” appear to have reached a turning point with no progress on denuclearization since the failed Hanoi summit and fifteen North Korean missile and rocket engine tests since the last summit between the two leaders in Vietnam this past February.

What are we to make of North Korea’s threatening messages?  What are the prospects for diplomacy or renewed crisis in 2020?

North Korea’s Christmas present to Trump in the form of a provocation may yet still be in the offing.  The original message stated an end-of-the-calendar year deadline for diplomacy.

If North Korea undertakes some form of missile demonstration, then it would probably display an advancement in capabilities that would signal a more survivable nuclear deterrent (e.g., ICBM, SLBM, solid fuel propellant). But North Korean actions could also take the form of a definitive statement, perhaps in Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, announcing that the “bromance” with Trump is over, diplomacy has failed, and North Korea will focus on consolidating its status as the world’s newest nuclear weapon state.  

While the media has been hyperventilating about an ICBM test, Pyongyang does walk a tightrope – it seeks to pressure Trump into releasing some sanctions, but to do this through an ICBM test would also upset its primary economic benefactor, China.

In any event, even a missile demonstration by North Korea does not rule out a temporary tracking back to diplomacy.  Both the Chinese and the South Koreans will be motivated in the aftermath of a test to steer events away from a replay of “fire and fury.”  However, the window is small, possibly through February, where a “phase one” deal could be done in which there is partial sanctions relief (particularly those 2016/2017 UN sanctions related to general trade) in return for a freeze of operations at Yongbyon and suspended testing. 

However, a broader denuclearization deal beyond “phase one” that includes a stockpile declaration and verification protocol is unlikely in 2020 given that Pyongyang will choose to enjoy a degree of sanctions relief, continue to covertly modernize their weapons programs, and wait out the U.S. election.

What should the United States do?

The United States faces a number of decision points in the coming weeks.

First, the United States must decide whether it wants to tighten sanctions on North Korea or loosen them.  Former officials like John Bolton seek maximum sanctions pressure to impose costs on the regime for its nuclear path.  But others in the policy community believe maximum pressure is not possible now with China and Russia lobbying to loosen, not tighten, sanctions in the UN.  In the end, this call will be made by Trump and will depend on how badly he wants to jumpstart diplomacy (US unwillingness to loosen sanctions was an obstacle to a deal in the February Hanoi summit) and cut a “phase one” deal to avoid a crisis during his election campaign.

Second, the United States must decide whether it will continue joint military exercises with South Korea.  These have been suspended and/or modified since the June 2018 Singapore summit in ways that hurt military readiness on the part of the alliance.  The major annual maneuver exercise, Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, usually takes place in the first quarter of 2020.   

Third, the United States must conclude Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations with South Korea.  The inability to reach an agreement on burden-sharing for the costs of stationing US forces in Korea at a time when we may be on the precipice of a new cycle of provocations with North Korea is both optically and operationally suboptimal.  The appearance of strains in the alliance also redounds to China’s benefit. 

Finally, the United States must do what it can to improve trilateral alliance coordination with Japan and South Korea.  This includes missile defense and ASW exercises, as well as intelligence sharing, despite the poor state of bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo.