North Korea does not celebrate Christmas, but it is willing to make an exception this year to give the United States a gift. According to Ri The Song, first Vice Minister at the Foreign Ministry, it us up to Washington to decide the nature of the present. Reading between the lines, Pyongyang appears to be hinting at further missile tests if the US refuses to return to the negotiating table. The gift could be a concession, however, if American diplomats reengage their North Korean counterparts after months of stalled discussions.
It is not entirely clear what the gift may entail, however, so for now, Ri’s comments have only provoked speculation. The last time North Korea gave the US a “gift” was in 2017 for the Fourth of July when it test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang set a deadline of the end of the year for nuclear discussions, but with only three weeks left in December and no news from Washington, time will likely run out.
Ri accused the US of purposely delaying peace negotiations for political gain.
“The dialogue touted by the US is, in essence, nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep the DPRK bound to dialogue and use it in favor of the political situation and election in the US,” he said.
The North Korean situation has taken a backseat to other pressing matters, such as the US-China trade war and the Iranian nuclear deal. At home, US President Donald Trump is also facing impeachment over a scandal involving Ukraine and Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden. Although Trump opened the door to talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un when he took office, discussions have lacked steady progress. Trump even became the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader at the demilitarized zone since the Korean War, an impressive gesture toward building a new relationship.
Trump appeared unfazed by Kim’s promise of a holiday gift.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said, speaking from London. “My relationship with Kim Jong Un is really good, but that doesn’t mean he won’t abide by the agreement we signed. I hope he lives up to the agreement, but we’re going to find out.”
The agreement Trump referred to was signed at a summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Each agreed to establish relations in the pursuit of peace and prosperity. Furthermore, Pyongyang agreed to work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This year, North Korea began test-firing missiles once more, but Trump did not budge.
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump said. Although he said he hopes Kim abides by their agreement, it has become clear that Kim is only willing to do so if the US returns to the negotiating table.
Pyongyang fired another missile on a new launcher dubbed its “super-large” launcher Nov. 29 in what it claimed was a “final review” of the setup. The practical effect of the test is that North Korea is ready to deploy updated offensive missiles, but the underlying message was meant not for its South Korean adversary, but the Trump administration. Kim is not baiting the US into war, but rather flexing the nation’s muscles to convince Washington to reopen diplomatic discussions.
It is neither a new nor recent strategy; Iran is using a similar playbook by gradually reducing its adherence to the Obama-era nuclear deal. The strategy has not worked for Tehran, but North Korea may find success where the Middle Eastern state has failed because Trump has expressed admiration for Kim and spoken highly of talks. At the last meeting between the two powers, American officials told the media they felt talks were “good,” even as North Korean diplomats expressed the opposite sentiment.
Trump has met Kim, but while the American leader viewed it as a concession, Kim was emboldened by the move. As American negotiators continued to hold discussions, the Trump administration was comfortable with the pace and lack of progress, aside from a non-binding agreement signed between Trump and Kim. Pyongyang has different take on the situation, preferring to have a formal deal in place before the end of 2019.
North Korea perhaps wants a deal made before the US election season begins in earnest because they fear Trump might lose and due to the time demands required to run for president. If Trump is busy holding rallies, he will not have time to focus on North Korea. A Christmas gift is a reminder that the problem is still there and Kim is not content to wait idly in the hope that one day Trump might pick up the phone again and arrange for another summit. Trump’s nonchalant demeanour indicates that he has larger obsessions at home (i.e. impeachment) and abroad (Iran and China) and when you deal with Trump, you do it on his terms, at his pace.