Commanding presence: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides in the snow at the iconic Mount Paektu - a location which state propaganda paints as a key location in the Kim Dynasty's formative years as anti-Japanese guerillas in the 1930s. Photo: AFP/ KCNA via KNS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un faces multi-dimensional constraints as he works toward strategic objectives in 2020 – and state messaging suggests no new thinking has emerged to drive North Korea forward.

Two years of promising negotiations, including three unprecedented meetings with US President Donald Trump hang in the balance. Yet the messages sent by last week’s Workers Party Central Committee Plenum hedged on the issue of whether talks are dead. Nor did Pyongyang send any kind of “Christmas gift” to the United States, as state propaganda had suggested it might.

Even so, the world will “witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by [North Korea] in the near future,” the Plenum warned.

Pyongyang seeks recognition as a nuclear state and sanctions relief, but the “new way” chosen by the regime for the coming year looks strikingly similar to the old path taken prior to 2018 – the year in which Kim stepped out of isolation and made his debut on the international stage, summitting with global leaders Xi Jinping of China, Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Donald Trump of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

The lack of mention of South Korea in the Plenum was telling: It would appear that Pyongyang has given up on dealing with a Seoul that is beholden to Washington.

So how does Kim’s 2020 look when it comes to dealing with an under-pressure Trump as the US president faces impeachment, election and an incendiary Middle Eastern crisis?

Kim hedges

2019 saw the promises of 2018 – when the two leaders signed a deal in Singapore on a variety of matters, notably the denuclearization of North – evaporate. After Trump “walked” from a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February North Korean working-level negotiators, in turn, walked out of a meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, in October.

The impasse is apparently immovable. Trump demands full denuclearization before offering concessions. Kim wants a serial quid pro quo: concessions – notably, sanctions relief – in return for a phased denuclearization process that will almost certainly be partial, not total.

Yet – regardless of apocalyptic headlines in global media – the recent Plenum did not kill all talks with the US.

Kim pulled back from the brink of ending US engagements, as some had anticipated. Nor did he test any strategic – or even tactical – weapons over the Christmas season, as bluster in state media had suggested he might.

And tellingly, Kim himself – who has leveraged his personal relationship with Trump in state media –  did not deliver a new year’s address, a tradition he has observed since 2013. Instead, he relied on state media to deliver messages indirectly from the four-day Plenum.

“The message was far less aggressive and far less radical than the vast majority of observers had expected,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University told Asia Times. “And [the North Koreans] have not done anything over Christmas or New Year, despite their hints.”

While international media reported that Kim had said he was no longer bound by a moratorium he made in April 2018 on nuclear and long-range missile tests – a factor which has repeatedly been trumpeted by Trump as a (rare) triumph of his own foreign policy  Lankov noted that the party “did not formally withdraw from their unilateral moratorium.”

“The statement that came out leaves some room for negotiations; they always do,” agreed Go Myong-hyun, an expert at Seoul’s Asan Insittute. “The statement is hedging – but they made very clear they are preparing a new strategic weapon so this is a clear indication that the want to show something.”

New weapon lacks punch

For decades, Pyongyang has ostentatiously tested strategic weapons. On the military front, tests demonstrate that North Korean deterrents are technologically viable. On the diplomatic front, tests are designed to prod the international community into concessionary mode.

And the Plenum, deploying typical Pyongyang-sprech, warned the country to be ready for a “head-on breakthrough battle” as it continues its “long-term confrontation with the US.”

Yet Kim, who has successfully tested both inter continental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and nuclear devices, has limited wriggle room with his promised “new strategic weapon.”

Analysts expect it to be a solid-fuel ICMB; a fully working submarine-launched ballistic missile or  new submarine; or a satellite launch (which dual-use technologies also used for strategic missiles).

None of these would have the impact of Kim’s past nuclear and ICBM tests. As such, the new weapon “is not a game changer,” Lankov said.

Why Kim must act

Washington’s overall disregard of North Korea will force Pyongyang to act provocatively in 2020, Go predicted. “It is now clear that Trump’s policy is not that different from Obama’s – a policy of neglect and status quo – and North Korea is struggling to break out of this frame,” he said. “So they are going to try provocations.”

Expecting 2020 to be “a political game between North Korea and the US,” Go said that Pyongyang had little choice but to provoke Washington as it seeks two key aims: US acceptance of it as a de facto nuclear state, and sanctions relief.

“It is inevitable that North Korea will have to use leverage as the weaker player,” he said. “It will take more risks and use provocations as leverage.”

Yet Pyongyang’s provocations will have to be carefully calibrated. “They are worried about the risk with Trump,” Go said.

Calibrating risk

The mercurial US president could act unpredictability in the face of a brace of domestic pressures – impeachment and election. On the other hand, Trump has a wide-enough portfolio of assets that he can also calibrate his own responses to Kim well short of a military option.

“If [North Korea] insists on a cycle of provocations, it risks redoubled military exercises by the US and its allies, additional economic sanctions, and an international information campaign to delegitimize the Kim regime,” Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said in an email to reporters. “Moreover, Chinese and Russian entities that help North Korea evade sanctions will themselves be subject to sanctions.”

An ironic risk that complicates North Korea’s maneuvers is of a Trump impeachment or a Democratic Party win in 2020.

“Kim Jong Un’s preference for the 2020 presidential election result is likely to be another Trump victory given the positions thus far articulated by Democrat candidates on North Korea issues,” said specialist media NK News in an analysis.

That itself might preclude the most provocative steps. “That may mean Kim avoids actions that risk significantly embarrassing Trump ahead of November’s vote,” NK News opined.

The Middle Eastern factor

Still, there is one area where North Korea may benefit: The full attention Washington must pay to the Middle East, following its stunning assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq.

While the US military claims to be able to handle two simultaneous crises at different points east and west, in reality, there is likely to be very limited appetite for that in the Pentagon. Moreover, as he faces the electorate, Trump may well seek to maintain good relations with North Korea, which represents perhaps his only major achievement in diplomacy and peace-making.

Seen in this light, regime policy wonks may interpret recent events positively – less fear of assassination, more the opportunity implicit in Middle East crisis.

“North Korea is always worried about assassination attempts, but it sees the Middle East as something that diverts the attention of the US military,” Go said. “North Korea can take advantage of that to make provocations, keep up the level of tension and force Trump to come to the negotiating table.”

In Part 2, to run tomorrow, Asia Times looks at Kim’s economic prospects, and his efforts to upgrade domestic loyalty and stability.

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