The year 2019 has expired, along with Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnKim calls for ‘positive and offensive’ North Korea security protections WH national security adviser on North Korean ‘Christmas gift’: ‘We’ll have to wait and see’ North Korea holds political conference before year-end concessions deadline set for US MORE’s promise/threat to send President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchumer renews call for witnesses to testify in impeachment trial in wake of ‘game changer’ report Tulsi Gabbard: Impeachment has ‘greatly increased the likelihood’ of Trump reelection and GOP retaking House Susan Collins says she’s ‘open’ to calling witnesses in Senate impeachment trial MORE “a Christmas gift” by the end of the year. Since the proffered holiday present was tied to North Korea’s demand that Washington lift sanctions for its nuclear program, it was widely interpreted by U.S. experts to portend an escalation in the negotiations standoff, such as a new long-range missile launch or even a nuclear test.
As Gift Day approached, Pyongyang increased its warnings with escalating rhetoric harkening back to the personal insult stage of the early Trump administration. Western concerns and tensions mounted amid preparations for a likely dramatic event and an appropriate response.
But it is now the last day of the year, and nothing untoward has been heard, seen, or detected from North Korea. Now the experts are asking why. What changed Kim’s mind about doing something provocative to get the president to bend?
Pending further insights into the dictator’s mind, we are left to speculate about possible explanations.
One is that it wasn’t a serious threat in the first place, just a geopolitical mind game, a gigantic bluff to panic the politically-beleaguered administration into lifting sanctions.
With the American president now buffeted by the impeachment challenge, Kim may have reasoned his new friend and pen-pal would welcome a pretext in the form of sanctions relief to show American goodwill in the holiday season and cool tensions before the U.S. election.
If that was how the North Koreans and their senior mentors in Beijing assessed the situation, they appear, once again, to have misjudged U.S. resistance to make further concessions without significant progress toward denuclearization.
They could well have been led astray by relying on prior administration policy fluctuations that they viewed as showing flexibility (i.e., weakness): the reversals on ZTE and Huawei, deferral of several key trade talk demands, the exoneration of Kim for the torture and murder of Otto Warmbier, the excusal of Xi Jinping for undermining international sanctions on North Korea, the sudden troop withdrawal and green light to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Syria.
If so, the North Koreans and Chinese (who have profited mightily by U.S. preoccupation with Pyongyang) must have been unpleasantly surprised that, this time, the U.S. president did not blink or flinch or even bluster in response to the escalating rhetoric. Instead, he remained calm and confident that the United States could handle any crisis Pyongyang chose to manufacture. He even gently joked that Kim was probably just contemplating a gift of a holiday vase (pronounced with as broad an “a” as might be heard on “Downton Abbey”).
Behind the scenes, however, and in the secret telephone communications that Trump routinely has with Kim, Xi, Putin and certain other world leaders, he may have been sending a sterner message. He could well have reprised a little of the “fire and fury” language he once used to advise the dictators that they were dealing with a different kind of U.S. leader not averse to considering military action if required by circumstances.
To back up any such rhetoric, the president authorized significantly increased reconnaissance flights over North Korea and the leaked disclosure of certain anti-regime special operations exercises directed at Pyongyang.
Even more speculative than U.S. responses in the kinetic realm is the possibility that in private warnings to Kim, Trump could have played the human rights card. He might have reminded him of his regime’s extreme vulnerability because of universal condemnation of its humanitarian atrocities, which Trump has highlighted publicly in earlier presidential addresses.
It is even possible that Trump decided to let Xi know that the double-game Communist China has been playing on North Korea must end in 2020, that the economic masters in Beijing no longer will be allowed to leverage their “cooperation” on the nuclear and missile threat against other Western interests (Taiwan, South China Sea, cyber theft and, as Xi is already discovering, on trade).
By making clear he is able and willing to play naughty as well as nice, Trump may have persuaded Kim that a vase is a better idea after all.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.