WASHINGTON – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has publicly promised the United States a “Christmas present,” which will presumably be a provocative act designed to demonstrate Pyongyang’s frustration and annoyance. It will also be aimed at pressuring the U.S. and its allies to capitulate to Pyongyang’s demands for some immediate sanctions relief before the North’s arbitrarily imposed deadline at the end of this year. Meanwhile, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, said Dec. 7 that the negotiations sought by the U.S. were only a “time-saving trick,” adding ominously that denuclearization is off the negotiating table. U.S.-North Korea negotiations have irrefutably stalled.
Leading up to this point, North Korea has also been conducting increasingly provocative short-range missile tests. So far, Washington has played them down to avoid corroding the negotiating atmosphere. This, despite statements by senior Japanese officials — not to mention then-national security adviser John Bolton, among others — that these tests are in clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Recent North Korean testing at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station — the exact facility that Kim, at his first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, promised would be disabled — is another escalatory move. The rapid resuscitation of Sohae also demonstrates the ephemeral nature of North Korean “concessions” to date.
And both sides have slipped back into ad hominem attacks.
It is therefore vividly clear that North Korea has not made a strategic decision to negotiate seriously with the U.S. at the working level. The U.S. has repeatedly stated that it is ready to engage with the North in the laborious and painstaking process of negotiating a serious agreement with a strong denuclearization component. For its part, however, the North has simply declined to engage. In fact, North Korea has only agreed to and participated in a grand total of eight days of working-level negotiations with the U.S. over the past 18 months — pitifully short of the time and effort needed to make serious progress.
Clearly Pyongyang believes that holding firm is its best option in the present environment. Trump is at the center of an impeachment process and looking ahead to the next presidential election; relations between Washington’s Northeast Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, are at a low point; and U.S.-South Korea basing talks are proving contentious. Kim may believe the U.S. now needs a deal more than North Korea does. He is certainly acting this way, with Pyongyang stalling on negotiations and increasingly bringing pressure to bear to achieve sanctions relief.
As is the case with any holiday gift, North Korea’s “Christmas present” will require careful thought and planning on the part of the giver. We can presume that Pyongyang will aim at pushing the envelope as far as possible without provoking strong international reaction, such as Security Council action to impose additional sanctions. Even against the present backdrop of China and Russia attempting to unravel existing U.N. sanctions on North Korea — let alone not add to them — a nuclear test by the North would cross this threshold, so we can hope and assume Pyongyang will rule out this option.
North Korea might conduct tests aimed at developing or advancing its nascent intercontinental ballistic missile program. North Korea’s initial steps in July 2017 to test ICBMs brought a swift response from Washington, which rightly viewed it with alarm. That move, in fact, is what originally led to the mutual Trump-Kim charm offensive, and in theory the prospect of negotiations leading to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The U.S. and its allies are correct to be concerned about a new North Korean ICBM test. North Korean missiles capable of striking the continental U.S. homeland would shift the correlation of forces. It would complicate U.S. decision-making for any future use of force against the North for fear of retaliation, and thereby threaten to decouple U.S. security from that of its close Asian allies, particularly Japan and South Korea.
Pyongyang knows it would immediately command Washington’s attention if it tested ICBMs again. That said, it is distinctly possible that the U.S. would be able to rally international opinion to take additional coercive measures against North Korea in response to an ICBM test, which might make this a risky bet for Pyongyang.
Alternatively, North Korea could conduct tests of sea-launched ballistic missiles or of land-based medium-range ballistic missiles — either of which could be fired over South Korean or Japanese territory. North Korea could also conduct a satellite launch to develop its missile capability; Pyongyang might be encouraged to do so by the fact that China, Russia and even South Korea apparently prefer to regard satellite launches as distinct from missile testing.
In fact, North Korea might regard any of these moves as being sufficient to attract attention and apply pressure without necessary provoking strong retaliation on the part of the U.S. and its allies.
In the meantime, in anticipation of a Christmas provocation by North Korea, the U.S. should continue to affirm its willingness to negotiate meaningfully at the working level, and to avoid taking steps — such as Security Council discussions about North Korea’s human rights situation — that Pyongyang could seize on to justify its provocation.
That way, in the immediate aftermath of a North Korean “Christmas present,” Washington can confidently and convincingly demonstrate to the world that it has made every effort — including Trump putting his own prestige on the line — to reach a negotiated settlement with North Korea.
Doing so would help justify the U.S. in leading the international community to take stronger measures against North Korea, without the momentum being vitiated by assertions that diplomatic efforts have not been given an adequate chance.
By the same token, the U.S. should continue to express willingness to negotiate with the North, both to demonstrate Washington’s reasonableness and to keep the door open should the North finally decide to make a dramatic shift in its policy.
In pursuing stronger measures against North Korea, the U.S. should first act to tighten sanction enforcement, particularly on illicit ship-to-ship transfers. This effort should focus not only on enforcing established caps on North Korean exports on coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, but also on caps on imports of crude oil and refined petroleum. One means of enforcement could involve exerting pressure on those countries whose “flags of convenience” — China/Hong Kong, Dominica, Panama, Sierra Leone and Tanzania, among others — have been abused by North Korea to evade sanctions, including illicit transfers of petroleum products in international waters.
The U.S. should also aim at reducing North Korea’s crude oil and refined petroleum import cap from 500,000 barrels, as established by the U.N. Security Council in 2017 — perhaps down to zero.
And it should take pains to enforce the Dec. 22 deadline for countries to expel North Korean indentured workers, who have provided North Korea with substantial hard currency.
North Korea’s cybercrime spree should also be the focus of new international sanctions. An expert report presented to the Security Council’s Sanctions Committee on North Korea in August concluded that North Korea “used cyberspace to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks to steal funds from financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges to generate income.” The report found that North Korea undertook at least 39 attacks since 2016, targeting financial institutions in 17 countries and stealing bitcoins from cyptocurrency trading sites, and then using cyberspace to launder the stolen funds. This has generated income estimated at up to $2 billion for the North’s weapons of mass destruction programs.
It is now time for the U.S., along with Japan and South Korea, to prepare to pivot on North Korea. Washington should shift its focus from its strenuous but so far unsuccessful efforts to bring about working-level negotiations. It should prepare intensively to tighten the existing sanctions regime and add additional elements to it as circumstances require. North Korea should be made to understand that, if it persists in delivering a “Christmas present,” in return it can expect a large lump of coal in its stocking.
Thomas Cynkin is a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.