Harry Kazianis: North Korea's choice, a Christmas crisis or make history post-impeachment

In just over the space of several hours Saturday, it seems North Korea wanted to make its intentions clear: the two-year détente between Washington and Pyongyang is nearly over.

First, in a statement from North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Pyongyang declared that “[W]e do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now and the denuclearization is already gone out from the negotiating table.”

From there it gets worse.

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Just hours later, North Korean media declared that “a very important test took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2019.” It is important to note that is the missile testing facility that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised to and did dismantle, only to rebuild it.

The statement concludes with an ominous warning: “The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future.”

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And then there is what Pyongyang has told us over the last few months and weeks. North Korea has put out countless press statements demanding the U.S. offer a much more conciliatory package of concessions before the end of the year, even walking out of working-level talks in early October.

“The DPRK has done its utmost with maximum perseverance not to backtrack from the important steps it has taken on its own initiative [a hint at resuming long-range missile and nuclear testing],” noted Ri Thae Song, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, in a recent statement. “What is left to be done now is the U.S. option and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”

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What could Pyongyang be hinting at? With a nuclear weapon test not possible — the prep time needed to reopen North Korea’s nuclear proving grounds would rule out a Christmas test — we can easily surmise what Kim’s so-called gift will be: a test launch of a long-range missile, an ICBM, that would in a wartime scenario deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S. homeland — and kill millions of people. And with the North Korean’s hinting at a Christmas “gift,” one could easily argue that such a test would be timed for late Christmas Eve night Eastern Standard Time, or Christmas Day in North Korea.

North Korea, most likely thinking it can apply pressure on the Trump administration at a time when it is facing impeachment in the House and trial in the Senate, is making a grave mistake. Attempting to bully Washington into concessions, thinking that Trump has been weakened and needs some sort of deal, is downright foolish. And, in fact, Pyongyang runs the strong risk of such a gambit blowing up in its face.

“North Korea, and Chairman Kim Jong Un, have a choice to make now,” noted a senior White House official speaking to me on background. “They can either come back to the table and work with us on a path towards denuclearization or, they can escalate tensions. But make no mistake about it, a long-range missile test of an ICBM would be a mistake.”

Does Pyongyang really want to go back to the dark days or 2017, when threats of nuclear war were commonplace?   

“We hope, and indeed we pray, that the current diplomatic track can be maintained,” the official continued. “That has been President Trump’s determination all along — going further than any other president in U.S. history to try and work with Pyongyang, taking flak from many Democrats and fellow Republicans. He wants to continue the dialogue that has been ongoing for the last few years. The president thinks something big can happen — and quite soon, in fact.”

But does Kim have to test a long-range ICBM, violating the pledge he made to Trump and one of the president’s big national security accomplishments? Does he realize that Washington would have no other choice but to push for much harsher sanctions on the regime, as well as beef up the military presence around North Korea? Does Pyongyang really want to go back to the dark days or 2017, when threats of nuclear war were commonplace?

I would argue that North Korea would like to avoid all of this if it can, as Kim, in many respects, has tied his own hands diplomatically. And, in fact, if he can show some restraint his actions could be rewarded.

Kim clearly must do something to show his toughness back home, especially after talks breaking down at the Hanoi summit in February. He later declared in April that there must be a deal with Washington by the end of the year — not knowing, of course, that Trump would be facing impeachment, thereby limiting his ability to offer any concessions until he is acquitted in the Senate, most likely in January. Kim has to act boldly to show his people that he can stand tall against Washington and do what he promised, stating that he will undertake a “new path” or “new way” if no deal or clear more conciliatory agreement is at least in the offing.

The good news is Kim can easily pick the supposed path he will travel — and even open the door to a historic settlement. Kim could decide, for example, to signal his toughness by doing something other than an ICBM test. He could test a submarine-launched missile, launch a satellite, fire off a new medium-range or even an intermediate-range missile. All those things, presumably, would not create a diplomatic crisis that Trump would have to respond to immediately.

If Kim can hold off on any ICBM tests — and wait until after Trump’s acquittal in the Senate — there is a chance history could be made, transforming the relationship between these two nations that are technically still at war. Trump, riding high after defeating Democratic opponents who will stop at nothing to reverse the 2016 election, will have political capital to use and will want to show the American people why he should be reelected. Trump could very well offer Kim a strong package of mutually beneficial concessions, including targeted sanctions relief and security guarantees — what Pyongyang has been seeking all along. But only after Trump’s impeachment issues are over — not before.

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“President Trump has always said he believes the future for North Korea can and should be a bright one,” noted another Senior White House official, also speaking on background. When I asked about the possibility of Trump having more flexibility to craft a deal when impeachment is over, the official seemed quite hopeful. “That seems obvious, but North Korea’s current actions don’t help us getting to a new place in our relations. We continue to watch their moves and can only hope the progress we have made over the last two years can be built upon.”

I just pray that Santa is the only special object flying through the night sky on Christmas Eve.

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