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North Korea may have stormed away from nuclear talks with the United States, set an end-of-year ultimatum, and fired missiles at a record pace in the second half of this year. But that is not stopping U.S. President Donald Trump from portraying his outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a major foreign policy achievement as the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign gains momentum.
A Trump campaign email sent out this week included North Korea in a list of eight “HUGE wins” during Trump’s first term in office. The fundraising email, signed by Trump, claimed that the president has “initiated the denuclearization of North Korea.”
Experts immediately disputed the claim. Not only has North Korea failed to give up a single nuclear weapon, Pyongyang has likely produced enough fissile material for perhaps up to 18 more nuclear weapons since Trump first met Kim in June 2018, estimates Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Things may soon get more tense. Last month, North Korea issued a veiled warning it could resume longer-range missile or nuclear tests. And the North has been loudly emphasizing its end-of-year deadline for Trump to offer more concessions in nuclear talks.
The situation poses a dilemma for Trump: how to handle a signature foreign policy priority — one Trump claimed to have already solved immediately after his first meeting with Kim — when the situation on the Korean peninsula appears to be deteriorating by the week.
Trump and Kim may decide to maintain some version of the status quo, relying on their personal relationship to limit tensions. But North Korea appears adamant about forcing Trump’s hand, said Jeffrey Robertson, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“The Trump administration faces a choice: a weak agreement that solidifies North Korea’s gains, offers more and keeps the calm until November 3rd, or a return to ‘fire and fury,’” Robertson said.
Trump downplays provocations
For now, a big part of Trump’s approach seems to involve not overreacting to North Korea’s provocations.
In recent months, Trump, who is fighting a congressional impeachment inquiry, has rarely mentioned North Korea, other than to stress that his relationship with Kim remains strong and may eventually result in a deal.
Trump has consistently shrugged off North Korea’s missile launches as unimportant, calling them “very standard” short-range missiles that many countries test.
The North has proceeded to test the short and medium-range missiles at a dizzying pace.
Since May, North Korea has conducted 12 rounds of missile launches — firing 24 projectiles in total. That equals the record high number Pyongyang tested in 2016, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Federation of American Scientists.
“If North Korea launches another missile this year, it’ll be the busiest missile testing year in its history,” said Panda, who closely follows North Korea’s nuclear and weapons program.
More turbulent times ahead?
In recent weeks, North Korea has also intensified warnings over its end-of-year deadline for nuclear talks.
Last week, a senior North Korean official warned the United States against using the Trump-Kim relationship as a “delaying tactic.”
“No substantial progress has been made in the DPRK-US relations,” said the official, Kim Yong Chol, who warned Washington is “seriously mistaken” if it tries to ignore Pyongyang’s end-of-year deadline.
Underscoring the threat, Kim Jong Un last month went on a symbolism-filled ride on a white horse up his country’s highest mountain, with state media warning of a “great operation to strike the world with wonder.”
Though the state media coverage of Kim’s horse ride was widely mocked on social media, analysts say the move was designed to both prepare Kim’s domestic and international audiences that there are dangerous times ahead.
“The North Korean leader does not ride a white horse to the top of Baekdu mountain because he is satisfied with the status quo,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
North Korea may now use nuclear and ICBM tests as leverage in an attempt to extract concessions before the 2020 U.S. election, said Easley. “Pyongyang wants sanctions relief without giving up its weapons, so why not create a crisis and get paid to de-escalate it?” he said.
Sanctions relief enough?
But even if Trump offers North Korea some sanctions relief, it’s not clear it will be enough. According to some analysts, Kim appears confident that he can do without a nuclear deal, at least in the short-term.
A growing number of analysts say there is evidence North Korea may instead focus on expanding its relationship with Russia and China.
According to a recent report in NK News, a North Korea-focused website, North Korea has benefited from a surge in Chinese tourism since 2018. The report’s author, Chad O’Carroll, estimates that around 350,000 mainland Chinese tourists visited North Korea in 2019, providing about $175 million in extra revenue for Pyongyang.
By comparison, North Korea was estimated to bring in only $120 million a year from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a now shuttered inter-Korean industrial zone that Seoul and Pyongyang are pushing to reopen as part of nuclear talks.
“So that’s quite good for the DPRK without sanctions changes,” O’Carroll said in a tweet.
Trump in February rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle a key North Korean nuclear facility in exchange for significant sanctions relief. The disagreement helped lead to the breakdown of talks.
Though North Korea agreed to hold working-level negotiations last month in Stockholm, they abandoned the discussions after just one day, blaming the United States’ “hostile” policy.
Since then, the North has consistently delivered negative messages.
On Tuesday, North Korea’s foreign ministry lashed out at the United States for mentioning Pyongyang in its annual report on state sponsors of terrorism.
“The channel of the dialogue between (North Korea) and the U.S.,” it warned, “is more and more narrowing.”