Washington braces as North Korea deadline looms
Lawmakers are bracing for a North Korean provocation as its year-end deadline for the United States to change its policies draws near.
Rhetoric is already heating back up, with North Korea reviving its “dotard” insult of President Trump and saying “foolish” U.S. actions have already helped it make a “definite decision” on its next steps.
Senators were loath to predict what exactly the unpredictable country might do after its deadline passes. But as analysts forecast a return to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear tests, lawmakers warned of rocky times ahead.
“If North Korea goes back to nuclear testing or they go back to ICBM testing, that will destroy their last best chance to have a win-win agreement with President Trump and that will put us on a collision course because we’re not going to allow them to develop the military capability to strike America with a nuclear weapon,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “So if they go down that road, it will burn the bridges available to them.”
U.S. talks with North Korea on denuclearization have floundered since Trump walked away from his February summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after they hit an impasse on how much sanctions relief the United States should offer and how much of its weapons program Pyongyang was willing to shut down.
Hopes for revived negotiations were piqued when Trump met with Kim at the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone in June and agreed to resume working-level talks. But those working-level talks didn’t happen until October, and they quickly broke down again.
Meanwhile, North Korea resumed testing short-range missiles, conducting more than a dozen launches this year.
Pyongyang also started warning that if the United States does not soften its negotiating stance by the end of the year, it would start taking a “new path.” North Korean officials have not specified what that path is, but regional experts expect it includes tests of ICMBs and nuclear warheads, breaking a self-imposed moratorium on such tests.
Earlier this month, North Korea warned the United States about the possibility of an unwelcome “Christmas gift.” Pyongyang also announced a rare planning meeting of top officials from the ruling party happening in late December, where experts have said Kim could make a major announcement like the end of talks with the United States.
Asked about potential North Korean provocations in the new year, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he “can’t predict” what they will do, but that he’s “always concerned about North Korea.”
“I don’t think they can be trusted at all,” Romney said. “I think history has proven that what they say and what they do are in different universes, and I hope that we maintain very strict sanctions on North Korea and recognize them for what they are.”
At a United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korea this past week, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft warned the rogue state against launching a satellite using ICBM technology or ICBMs themselves that are “designed to attack the continental United States with nuclear weapons.”
“Missile and nuclear testing will not bring the DPRK greater security,” Craft said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name. “It will not bring the DPRK or the region greater stability. It will not help the DPRK achieve the economic opportunities it seeks. In fact, it will do the opposite, complicating our ability to negotiate an agreement that would positively address the DPRK’s security and economic goals, and improve regional stability.”
North Korea responded by calling the U.S. decision to convene the Security Council meeting a “hostile provocation.”
“By holding the meeting, the U.S. did a foolish thing which will boomerang on it, and decisively helped us make a definite decision on what way to choose,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Trump himself has been more dismissive of North Korea’s deadline, suggesting Kim doesn’t want to hurt his re-election chances.
“I’d be surprised if North Korea acted hostilely,” Trump said this month. “I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un. I think we both want to keep it that way. He knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that. But we’ll have to see.”
Still, Trump added that “there’s no question” there is “certain hostility.” Trump has also revived his Rocket Man nickname for Kim that he used during the height of tensions in 2017.
“He definitely likes sending rockets up, doesn’t he? That’s why I call him Rocket Man,” Trump said while in London for a NATO summit.
North Korea responded to Trump’s renewed nicknamed by bringing back its own 2017 insult: dotard.
“If any language and expressions stoking the atmosphere of confrontation are used once again on purpose at a crucial moment as now, that must really be diagnosed as the relapse of the dotage of a dotard,” Choe Son Hui, first vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement carried by KCNA.
With the war of words already heating back up weeks before the end of the year, Trump’s critics are blaming him for what they describe as shoddy diplomacy.
“The president won’t engage in real diplomacy,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “He thinks he can get a deal between himself and Kim, which he can’t. He needs help. He sold out the South Koreans multiple times. He can only talk to China about trade. He doesn’t have the ability to walk and chew gum with China at the same time.”
Murphy added that while “nobody should be in the business of trying to predict what North Korea is going to do,” he is worried Pyongyang sees weakness and will “calculate that they can get away with some significant new testing.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) similarly expressed concern about actions an “emboldened” Kim could take.
“The president has engaged in high-profile and risky diplomacy, given Kim Jong Un – who was an international pariah – now recognition, stopped our exercises with our allies and weakened the sanctions regime as a result of his actions, and gotten nothing in return,” Menendez said.
“If anything, I think Kim Jong Un feels more emboldened,” he added. “So I am worried about how emboldened he’ll be.”
Some Republicans, though, are brushing off North Korea’s warnings as typical of the notoriously bellicose country.
“We’re always concerned about North Korea, but I don’t believe this is an atypical performance on their part,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper predicted the United States would soon be “tested” on whether it can bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
“The only way forward is through a diplomatic, political agreement,” Esper said in an address at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
“War on the peninsula would be horrible. Nobody wants to see that.”
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