Kim Jong-un Returns to a Familiar Playbook

After the disappointing summit in Vietnam, Kim Jong-un has returned to the traditional North Korean playbook–launching missile tests to get the U.S. back to the negotiating table. So what comes next in U.S.-North Korean relations? Here are three policy options and their likelihood of being adopted.

Option 1. The U.S. ignores these provocations to maintain the façade that U.S. – North Korea relations are better than at any other time in the past.

Likely, at least for now. This is definitely Trump’s preferred approach as it keeps North Korea as a foreign-policy victory for the administration. In an interview with POLITICO, Trump argued that these missile tests are not a setback as “some of the things that they fired, they weren’t even missiles”. Additionally, as the White House ratchets up tensions with Iran, there should be little appetite for a simultaneous conflict with North Korea.

Events, however, may soon make continuing down this road untenable. For example, the U.S.’s seizure of a North Korean shipping vessel accused of violating American sanctions may instigate retaliatory acts by Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, any missile tests that come near Japan’s defense perimeter could be shot down by Japan, as they have repeatedly threatened to do so in the past.

Option 2. The Trump administration returns to the bargaining table and agrees to an incremental denuclearization process. This would involve the lifting of some sanctions for each stage of Kim’s cooperation in halting the further development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Maybe. Trump remains insistent that any negotiated agreement will be an all or nothing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But he has already been willing to make concessions to North Korea for small tokens of progress. For example, he canceled joint U.S. – South Korea military exercises in 2018 & further suspended them during the spring of 2019 simply for Kim’s declaration that he is committed to denuclearization. In an impromptu press conference on Thursday, Trump said that he didn’t think North Korea was ready to return to negotiations. It is not clear what he meant by that statement.

Option 3. Trump returns to the early days of his Presidency by issuing threats and taking actively hostile measures towards North Korea.

Possibly, but only if events make it impossible to pursue option one. In addition to Iran, the administration is engaged in a standoff with Venezuela’s President Maduro. With military resources also redirected to the border with Mexico, the U.S. cannot afford military engagements in three different regions.

Regardless of the administration’s motivations, the optimal policy would be some combination of option one and two. I am in favor of ignoring the short-range missile tests, because any reaction that involves the military the risks of the danger of escalation from North Korea. Military hostilities only makes it harder to make progress on getting to an agreement that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear program.

My previous blog posts on North Korea for the Duck of Minerva

Does the U.S. have a North Korea Strategy?

Has Sunshine Returned to the Korean Peninsula?

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