SEOUL – In April, just weeks after his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump collapsed in Hanoi, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decided to ramp up the pressure on Washington.
“We will wait for a bold decision from the U.S. with patience till the end of this year,” Kim said in a speech to North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly.
Just three weeks later, Kim launched his first missiles in nearly a year and a half and would conduct 12 more rounds of launches in 2019, underscoring the urgency of his year-end deadline.
At one point in early December, North Korean state media published near-daily warnings of Kim’s deadline, including one threat from a Foreign Affairs Ministry official regarding a potentially sinister “Christmas gift” for the U.S.
The top U.S. Air Force general in the Pacific region said he expected North Korea’s gift to be a long-range missile launch. The U.S. increased surveillance flights around the Korean peninsula, apparently on alert for weapons tests.
The Christmas gift never came, though.
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Maybe, some analysts said, North Korea was waiting for Kim’s annual New Year’s speech to unveil a major, provocative announcement.
That didn’t really happen either. Kim’s New Year’s comments were relatively restrained, striking a more pessimistic than provocative tone.
All of this raises questions. Why did North Korea steadily raise tensions for much of 2019, only to let them apparently fizzle out once the deadline passed, and what does that say about how North Korea will act in 2020?
North Korean ‘strategic patience’
The short answer is that nobody knows.
One big clue is Kim’s New Year’s remarks, which came at the end of an important meeting of ruling party politicians in Pyongyang.
Kim warned the world would soon witness a “new strategic weapon” and said he no longer feels bound by his moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests, which he unilaterally declared in April 2018, just as his diplomacy with Trump was beginning.
Kim did not formally abandon nuclear talks, though. Instead, he said their progress depends on the U.S. — progress that won’t likely come anytime soon, he added. North Korea, he said, should be prepared for a “long-term” standoff with Washington.
That could be North Korea’s version of “strategic patience,” according to North Korea analyst Koo Kab-woo. That is a reference to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempt to apply carefully calibrated economic and military pressure until Pyongyang was ready to make concessions at the negotiating table.
For North Korea, strategic patience includes emphasizing “self-reliance, an increase in its nuclear deterrent, and stronger diplomacy that could bring about the denuclearization [of North Korea] if the U.S. lifts its confrontational policies,” said Koo, a scholar at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, at a recent conference.
While that strategy may include more weapons tests, as hinted at in Kim’s speech, North Korea may be reluctant to cross any “red line” that would prompt a major reaction by Washington, Koo said.
An intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear test could also upset China and Russia when both countries are pressuring the U.S. to relax sanctions on North Korea, analysts have said.
As a result, North Korea may not fully provoke or fully engage the U.S. in the near future — a policy of intentional ambiguity, Koo said.
Bigger moves coming?
Not everyone agrees with the strategic patience analogy, though.
“Strategic patience implies that North Korea has expectations from U.S.-DPRK diplomacy,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst for the North Korea-focused NK News online publication, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
According to Lee, Kim’s New Year’s comments signaled he has “little to no hope” for a diplomatic breakthrough.
“My feeling is that he is buying time for himself, not because he is hopeful of concessions from the U.S., but because he is not ready to showcase the ‘new strategic weapon’ yet,” she said.
There’s still a possibility that North Korea may act more forcefully this year, Lee said.
“It could be that Kim feels it’s not the right time to provoke. It could be the China factor, it could be that Kim is waiting for the right moment in the U.S. presidential election, or it could be that he wants to see some progress on the problems on the economic front,” she said.
If North Korea is reluctant to upset the status quo for now, though, that may be just fine for Trump, who is entering a more intense phase of his reelection campaign and has been focused on other foreign policy issues, such as Iran.
“As long as North Korea doesn’t launch long-range missiles and doesn’t test nuclear devices, I think Trump can claim that everything is alright,” said Artyom Lukin, an international relations scholar at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.
Trump’s reelection campaign has portrayed the North Korea talks as a major foreign policy win, and Trump remains publicly optimistic about their eventual success, even as North Korea stormed away from talks and conducted a near-record number of weapons tests in 2019.
However, there does appear to be a limit for Trump. Last month, he signaled he would be disappointed if Kim resumed ICBM or nuclear tests. “He knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that, but we’ll have to see,” Trump said.
Trump may be employing his own version of strategic patience, according to Lukin, describing the approach as: “We are ready to talk when you are ready, but we can wait.”
Who will move first?
If both the U.S. and North Korea are showing signs of “strategic patience,” the big question is: Who can afford to wait longer?
In Lukin’s view, the situation is much more urgent for North Korea.
“Any radical move they make is only going to make their position worse. If they start testing long-range missiles, it will carry all sorts of risks for them. If they start real denuclearization, it’s also a very risky thing,” Lukin said.
“The only thing that’s left for Kim Jong Un is to wait, wait, and wait. But you could wait a long time — you could wait forever and nothing could happen, actually,” he added.
Signs of frustration
One sign of North Korean frustration came last week, when senior North Korean Foreign Affairs Ministry official Kim Kye Gwan accused the U.S. of taking advantage of the relationship between Trump and Kim.
Though the Trump-Kim relationship remains “not bad,” it is also not enough to ensure the talks progress, he said.
“Although Chairman Kim Jong Un has … good personal feelings about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal,'” the diplomat said.
Nuclear talks can only resume, Kim said, once the U.S. agrees to totally accept all of North Korea’s demands.
“But we know well that the U.S. is neither ready nor able to do so,” he added.