In April of 2019, Kim Jong-un gave the Trump administration an ultimatum; “It is essential for the U.S. to quit its current calculation method and approach us with a new one,” by January 1 or else.1 We’re less than a month away from that deadline and North Korea (DPRK) has been ramping up its live-fire artillery drills,2 breaking the comprehensive military agreement just signed in September.3 A significant launch was conducted on Nov. 23rd, the 9th anniversary of the attack on Yeonpyeong Island4 clearly meant to be provocative but was met with mostly crickets from the US who’s focus is elsewhere at the moment. DPRK followed up with another on November 28th.5 This resulted in a tete-a-tete with Japan’s Shinzo Abe.6

So what’s happening?

Despite the US trying to bring Kim back to the negotiating table7, Kim needs them to be on his terms. Kim has transformed North Korea’s economy by allowing some market forces and privatization but sanctions are taking their toll.8 His authority was validated internationally for the first time by his meeting with President Trump and he believes he has an advantage while Washington’s focus is on the trade war with China (among others), impeachment proceedings, and reelection efforts.9 With the 2020 election getting closer, Kim cannot waste time. There is a chance the one US president to meet with him and validate him may lose office.

The continuation of sanctions, from Kim’s point of view, is a betrayal. He made concessions by stopping his nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017 but the US has done little in the way of reciprocity.10 Kim imagined the US would reciprocate by lifting sanctions.1 Instead, the US and the UN continued with the sanctions and South Korea walked away from a joint tourism development program. Moreover, despite Kim’s saber-rattling, it seems Washington has failed to notice.

So what can we expect?

The DPRK will have no choice but to ratchet up its rhetoric and saber-rattling while seeking assistance from China, Russia11, and Iran.12 For example, Kim has already moved from launching missiles into the Yellow Sea to launching them into the Sea of Japan and insulting Shinzo Abe directly.13 Kim has also signaled (after South Korea ended the project) a continuation of the tourism project at Mt. Kumgang Resort.14 Tourism is one of the few legal economic developments allowed under current sanctions and China supplies the most tourists to the area.14 DPRK diplomats have been meeting in Moscow and Tehran lately as well.15 16

In the coming weeks, if there is still no response from the US, one can expect a fiery New Year’s address from Kim as he continues to extend the range of missile tests. In the past, he’s gone as far as attacking South Korean ships without much retribution and the current Moon Jae-in government seems determined to extend only kindness to Kim. Despite that, Kim still must walk a fine line. He wants to force the US back to the table, he needs the sanctions removed, but he cannot risk an all-out war. Yet it is the reinstatement of ICBM and/or nuclear tests that will trigger a response from the Trump administration who views the halt as a political triumph. Washington will have to impose more sanctions; but given that the maximum pressure campaign has reached the limits of its effect, a more creative solution will be necessary. It is this next solution that will be important to watch in coming weeks, as it will dictate Kim’s retaliation level and indicates North Korea’s priority in the US agenda. It’s also important to note the US may not have the political or economical will to impose stricter sanctions, because enforcing those sanctions means denying violators access to US markets and that further erodes US businesses’ income.17 A move not especially prudent during an election cycle and with several trade wars already in place.

1. North Korea’s deadline on denuclearisation talks looms, but what does it mean? /article/07/10/2019/North-Korea-s-deadline-on-denuclearisation-talks-looms,-but-what-does-it-mean. Accessed December 2, 2019.

2. Robin. South Korea Expresses Regret over DPRK’s Artillery Firing Drills in Border Island. FRESH NEWS. Accessed December 2, 2019.

3. Kim Jong Un visits frontline units, orders military to step-up “war-like” drills | NK News. NK News – North Korea News. November 2019. Accessed November 26, 2019.

4. AP H-JK|. Seoul says North Korea has fired 2 short-range projectiles. Washington Post. Accessed December 3, 2019.

5. Press A. Seoul says North Korea has fired 2 short-range projectiles. POLITICO. Accessed December 2, 2019.

6. Stanglin D. North Korea blasts Japanese PM as “idiot,” warns of ballistic missile launch toward Japan. USA TODAY. Accessed December 2, 2019.

7. 이치동. (2nd LD) Allies working on “contingency plans” over N. Korea’s year-end deadline ultimatum: Cheong Wa Dae. Yonhap News Agency. Published November 10, 2019. Accessed December 3, 2019.

8. Yoon E-YJ and D. The New Look of North Korea’s Economy: ‘It’s All Capitalism There Now.’ Wall Street Journal. Published February 25, 2019. Accessed December 2, 2019.

9. Bonn T. Dem strategist says Trump “validated” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. TheHill. Published May 9, 2019. Accessed December 3, 2019.

10. North Korea says U.S. responsible if diplomacy over Korea peninsula breaks down. Reuters. Published November 22, 2019. Accessed November 26, 2019.

11. North Korea says no more talks with U.S. just so Trump can boast. Reuters. Published November 19, 2019. Accessed December 2, 2019.

12. Daniels J. North Korea’s “No. 2” official strengthens ties with Iran as UN hits Pyongyang with new sanctions. CNBC. Published August 5, 2017. Accessed December 2, 2019.

13. North Korea warns Japan’s Abe may soon see real ballistic missile launch. Reuters. Published November 29, 2019. Accessed December 2, 2019.

14. The North Korean Economy, November 2019: Kim Jong Un’s Kumgang Statement Signals a Shift in Economic Gears | 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea. 38 North. Published November 25, 2019. Accessed December 2, 2019.

15. What to make of this week’s North Korean-Russian parliamentary talks in Moscow | NK News. NK News – North Korea News. October 2019. Accessed December 3, 2019.

16. Iran hails N Korea for standing against ‘unilateral’ US demands. PressTV. Accessed December 3, 2019.

17. Furious Futility: Maximum Pressure in 2020 | 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea. 38 North. Published November 15, 2019. Accessed November 21, 2019.

By Adam Ragozzino

Adam Ragozzino is a Boston-based analyst who has worked as a research and policy analyst in the US. Currently, he is an independent consultant and runs Acies Lumen, LLC, a fledgling geopolitical research firm. He writes about international affairs and conflict with a particular focus on Africa. When not chained to a desk or under lockdown, you can find him riding or skiing in the northeast US.

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