2019 is shaping up to be the Year of North Korea

2019 is shaping up to be the Year of North Korea
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Here’s a sentence I never thought I would put in print: These days, it’s good to be Kim Jong Un.

The North Korean dictator, whose family is responsible for the death of millions of people and what amounts to the near enslavement of millions of his own citizens, is enjoying what can be described only as a personal renaissance over the past year.

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It certainly didn’t start out that way. In fact, a war on the Korean Peninsula seemed possible. During a New Year’s Days address, an annual event for North Korea watchers, Kim declared his nuclear program “complete” and bragged, “[T]he entire mainland of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear weapons, and the nuclear button is always on the desk of my office. They should accurately be aware that this is not a threat but a reality.”

Although meant as to serve as a clearly calibrated warning, the speech also offered hope that tensions could be reduced. Kim also offered an olive branch during his remarks, stating that “[N]orth and South must work together to alleviate the tensions and work together as a people of the same heritage to find peace and stability.”

Thankfully, for all of us, no buttons were ever pressed, no “fire and fury” was unleashed, nor was a “bloody nose” delivered.

It was from this point forward that tensions began to wind down dramatically — right in the nick of time — and Kim’s fortunes began to improve. What drove the crisis to a near nuclear showdown in 2017 — the testing of long-range missiles that, at least in theory, could hit the U.S. homeland and a hydrogen bomb test — stopped in their tracks, thanks to a self-imposed testing ban by Pyongyang.

Such actions laid the foundation for what can be described only as a minor miracle, a historic drop in tensions that seems almost unprecedented. With a successful Winter Olympics, where North Korean athletes and high-ranking officials participated quite publicly, three separate inter-Korean summits, multiple meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in North Korea, and a historic summit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE and Kim in Singapore, talk of military conflict thankfully has mostly disappeared from headlines.  

And with all that, Kim seemed to go from pariah to pop star — nearly overnight. Quite suddenly, the North Korean leader emerged from the shadows, in what seems to be a carefully calibrated rebranding of his personal image and his nation’s. Kim traveled twice to China, hosted senior officials from all over the globe, and even seems to be building momentum in a push to have crippling international sanctions lifted.

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But if you thought 2018 was a banner year for Kim, 2019 could be even better. If he holds off on testing any nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, North Korea could very well escape the diplomatic and economic vise — a.k.a. “maximum pressure” — that America has tried to impose. Kim seems likely to hold summits soon with world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (for the fourth time), Chinese President Xi Jinping in Pyongyang, and possibly even Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This, keep in mind, is on top of a promised second summit with President Trump.

Certainly, any talks are preferable to threats of nuclear war. But America is faced with a growing challenge that might not be easily solved: A North Korea, with nuclear weapons, that increasingly is accepted by the international community.

To be honest, that should come as no surprise. With Russia and China eager to encourage warmer economic and diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, and South Korea more concerned about non-nuclear military challenges coming from North Korea, Washington increasingly appears out of step with international public opinion. None of these nations is comfortable with the Kim regime holding weapons that can kill millions, but they no longer allow this fact to stop them from forging new relationships with the North.

What the Trump administration does in the next few weeks will decide whether the North Korea challenge reverts to threats of nuclear war — or advances to full-blown détente. Short of war, there is little Washington can do to get Pyongyang to give up its weapons of mass destruction and missile technology. In fact, the administration’s recent hardline position of demanding full nuclear disarmament before any sanctions relief will only push Kim to strengthen ties with Beijing and Moscow. South Korea also will be thrust into the worst of predicaments, perhaps having to choose between preserving a decades-old alliance with America or missing an opportunity to forge a relationship with the North.

The good news is, America is infinitely stronger than tiny, impoverished North Korea and can create a set of conditions that virtually guarantees peace on the Korean Peninsula. That means offering to end the Korean War, once and for all, in exchange for a dramatic gesture of denuclearization by the North — something Pyongyang has hinted at several times. In fact, President Trump could announce via Twitter that he would accept such an agreement, showing Kim that he is quite serious about peace while testing North Korea’s true intentions — and making it difficult for Kim to say no or change his mind.

So, although 2019 might be the Year of Kim Jong Un, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing for America or the world. It will, however, require some “outside-of-the-box” thinking, flexibility and strategic smarts. There is no reason that permanent peace cannot take hold on the Korean Peninsula.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its in-house publishing arm, The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.