North Korea and Trump: Is it back to square one, only worse?

On Inauguration Day 2017, when Barack Obama ushered Donald Trump into the Oval Office, the outgoing president had a blunt warning for his successor concerning North Korea.

The volatile and unpredictable dictatorship with a nascent nuclear arsenal and an intercontinental missile program nearing an ability to reach the continental United States would be the new president’s gravest national security challenge, Mr. Obama cautioned.

Now 3 1/2 years later, and as the 2020 presidential election gears up, many Northeast Asian experts say the same warning Mr. Obama offered President Trump is very likely to apply for whoever occupies the Oval Office on Inauguration Day 2021 – whether it’s Mr. Trump settling into a second term, or former Vice President Joe Biden moving up to the top job.

Indeed, after Mr. Trump’s unorthodox diplomatic approach to the North Korea of Kim Jong Un, which temporarily lowered tensions but failed to move the country toward denuclearization, it’s essentially back to square one with Pyongyang, some experts say.

That is, with one big catch.

“We are basically back to square one – only in some cases it’s worse,” says Frank Aum, a former Pentagon senior adviser on North Korea who is now senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington. He notes the North Koreans are quietly amassing more fissile material every year – enough to build seven to 12 nuclear bombs annually, experts estimate – and are steadily improving their intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.

“So they have all that,” he adds, “but we don’t have anything to show for the last 3 1/2 years in terms of denuclearization.”

Others bluntly deem the “back where we started” characterization inaccurate and even dangerous, because it fails to take into account the North’s significant nuclear and missile progress – and fails to recognize that four more years of Pyongyang as a de facto nuclear power is not likely to make the North any more likely to negotiate away its nuclear status.

“Whoever is in the Oval Office next January, where North Korea figures on the list of national security threats will largely depend on whether North Korea is acting up and forcing some kind of response,” says Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea analyst who is now a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“But it won’t exactly be back to where we were,” he adds, “because both [the North’s] nuclear and missile capabilities are higher – in both quality and quantity – than they were in 2017.”

Series of provocations

With the world preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea had receded to the background of the global stage, an ignominious spot it retreated to after the collapse of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, last year. The North ultimately balked at the U.S. demand for full denuclearization before economic sanctions relief.

That summit appeared to end the “love” Mr. Trump had said existed between the two leaders.

But as Mr. Klingner notes, the North “does not like to be ignored,” especially when there is something – in this case relief from punishing U.S. and international economic sanctions – it wants very much. And so, in recent weeks, Pyongyang has launched a series of provocations aimed at alarming and punishing both South Korea and the U.S.

Last week Pyongyang rattled Northeast Asia – and Korea watchers in the U.S. – by blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong. The North closed off all communication lines with the South, and threatened to send troops into border cooperation zones and remilitarize the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.

On Tuesday Pyongyang did an abrupt about-face and announced suspension of its military plans against the South – a move analysts summed up as typical “keep them guessing” behavior.

But it did not signal a significant rhetorical softening toward Seoul and Washington.

On Thursday, Pyongyang chose the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War to attack “hostile policy” from the U.S., saying it has had no choice but to counter “nuclear with nuclear” and make that a cornerstone of its national security policy.

Sister act

The recent harsh pronouncements have coincided with the emergence and expanding public profile of Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, as a hard-liner with strengthening links to the military.

Ms. Kim was trumpeted as the Ivanka Trump of the Kim regime when she appeared – impeccably dressed and with expensive designer bag in hand – to lead the North’s delegation to the Seoul Olympics in 2018. But her transformation from fashion plate to tough-talking leader in her own right may be a kind of insurance policy for the Kim regime’s survival, given Mr. Kim’s suspected precarious health, some experts say.

It may also be a message both to North Koreans and to the world that the family-based regime is here to stay – and still has the wherewithal to unsettle neighbors and superpowers alike.

Signs have grown recently that a jilted Mr. Kim intends to remind Mr. Trump that the two countries have unfinished business – and that Pyongyang has tricks up its sleeve to influence the U.S. election if it chooses to use them.

Earlier this month the North’s foreign minister, Ri Son Gwon, issued a blistering critique of Mr. Trump’s summit diplomacy, calling it “nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep [Pyongyang] bound to dialogue” and to skew “the political situation and election in the U.S.”

“Never again,” he added, “will we provide the U.S. chief executive with another package to be used for achievements without receiving any returns.”

To the extent that foreign policy emerges as a major factor in the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump will be able to claim the U.S. benefited from his outside-the-box approach to North Korea, some analysts say. After the initial “fire and fury” stage of his engagement with the North, the spectacle of the 2018 Singapore summit did lead to reduced tensions, a hiatus in weapons and missile testing, and Mr. Trump’s assurance to Americans that they could “sleep well at night.”

Even some big names in national security issues have recently come out in support of the president’s effort to do something different. In his new book, “Exercise of Power,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he supported Mr. Trump’s summit diplomacy because “every other effort to limit the North Korean nuclear capability over the last 25 years” had failed.

October surprise?

Still, Pyongyang may have no intention of sitting passively in the plus column of the president’s foreign policy achievements.

Heritage’s Mr. Klingner says he has never seen such direct and repeated referencing of U.S. elections by the North, a development he believes could mean the North is considering a splashy move – perhaps around October? – to try to act as a spoiler in the presidential election.

Mr. Aum of USIP differs with that assessment, noting that while he believes the North could continue with minor provocations in the coming months to let the world know it can still cause a ruckus, he does not expect any crossing of “red lines” – like a nuclear test or an intercontinental missile launch – that could lead the world to impose even more sanctions.

Whoever ends up in the Oval Office next January, Mr. Aum says the lesson of the last four years will not be that trying something new with North Korea was a mistake, but rather that a combination of “superficial” summits with all-or-nothing U.S. policies was a recipe for failure.

“We shouldn’t fault the president’s outside-the-box approach to North Korea for why we got nowhere,” he says, “but we should be critical of the way that out-of-the-box diplomacy was carried out.”

The combination of “reality-TV diplomacy based on personalities” and “the maximalist demands that [the North] give up all of its nuclear program before getting any sanctions relief” was not a productive match, Mr. Aum says. “That was never going to work.”

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