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Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Kim Jong Un’s end-of-the-year deadline for the U.S. to make a “resolute decision” in diplomacy with the DPRK seemed a long way away when it was first announced back in April.
But as 2019 draws to a close, tensions surrounding the deadline have heightened sharply, especially after a small war of nerves between North Korea and the U.S.
A spokesperson for the North’s State Affairs Commission reiterated the year’s end deadline in a rare commentary on November 13. But a week later, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said that the deadline was an “artificial” one the North Koreans had “set upon themselves.”
The deadline has recently become a hot topic of discussion among North Korea. Does it really matter? What will happen if we enter 2020 with no breakthrough? And why did Kim choose the end of the year as his cut-off point?
The answers are pretty obvious, at least from the North Korean perspective. Yes, the deadline really matters. If there’s no breakthrough in negotiations, the North will take the so-called “new path.” And Kim chose the end of the year as his deadline because he should, and because he could.
2020: THE FINAL YEAR OF THE FIVE-YEAR ECONOMIC STRATEGY
The North Korean leader had no choice but to pick the end of 2019 because the new year marks the home straight of his “five-year strategy for the state economic development from 2016 to 2020.”
When he chaired the 7th Party Congress in May 2016, he promised that he would bring economic development through the five-year strategy. He’ll need to report the results of this endeavor by the end of next year.
The celebration may be held on October 10, since this will mark the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea. They could also choose September 28th, the 10th anniversary of Kim’s public emergence as his father’s successor.
Chairman Kim wants to announce the glorious triumph of the five-year fight for economic development in around 11 months’ time, and for this he has three options which he can choose to pursue (or swallow): 1) large-scale economic development as a result of successful nuclear negotiations with the U.S.; 2) medium-scale economic development from a compromise deal with China and Russia; or 3) small-scale economic development by choosing the ‘Juche‘ (self-reliance) path.
He seems to want the first option because he has strong aspirations for North Korea’s economic development. But this kind of large development is only possible if sanctions imposed on the country are lifted, and sanctions relief is only possible if the North compromises on denuclearization.
The problem is, though, that he would have to give up his nuclear weapons to achieve option number one, which could be dangerous for his political legitimacy.
His second choice is an attractive compromise in that Kim can push his development policies without much concern over threats to his rule. The downside is that he risks being abandoned by China and Russia without any visible progress — there are still a lot of economic sanctions on North Korea.
Option number three would be a rejection of the U.S.’s demand for the North’s Final, Fully Verified Denuclearization (FFVD), resulting in failed negotiations with the U.S., no sanctions relief, and economic development only possible through domestic exploitation.
The positive is that Kim will still have his hard-won nuclear weapons. The negative is that he gives up his chance at big money for economic development.
The current situation is not favorable for the large-scale development Chairman Kim wants. The U.S. may not be ready for nuclear negotiations, and so Kim is considering the other two options for his ‘new path.’
He needs to set a deadline for himself around the year’s end though: — although it’s not January 1st yet, and all three options are technically still on the table, he’ll have to write his annual new year’s speech at some point.
This speech will detail the North’s policy direction for the upcoming year, its relationship with the U.S., and so on. But, as he won’t be able to write the whole speech on the day, he’ll need to make a decision soon.
THE 2020 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS AND U.S.-DPRK NEGOTIATIONS
Kim Jong Un might think that the end of 2019 is the best time for him to increase the pressure on and get some big concessions out of U.S. President Donald Trump because of the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign.
President Trump has boasted that his diplomacy is winning because North Korea has not been launching long-range missiles or testing nuclear weapons, and he has also been maintaining economic sanctions.
While joint U.S.-ROK joint military exercises have been repeatedly halted, he might argue that this doesn’t matter since the exercises are too expensive anyway.
But what if North Korea launched a long-range missile today? This would damage Trump’s claim that he’s a smart negotiator.
He could do an about-face on the North by sending strategic military assets toward the Korean peninsula.
But it’s not certain that threats and intimidation would work — Trump has demonstrated that he doesn’t view current levels of overseas military deployment as lucrative, plus nobody would believe that Mr. Trump would wage an all-out war against North Korea in order to save an ally.
Yes, the deadline really matters
North Korea has been preparing for this situation for a long time, acting with extreme caution until conditions were ripe to pressure the President.
Strongly-worded insults came from high-ranking North Korean officials following the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, but North Korea was careful to clarify that they were not aimed at Mr. Trump but rather other important figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The North Koreans may reckon now is the time to browbeat the President, as the U.S. presidential campaign has practically started. If Mr. Trump rejects one of the North’s demands, they could threaten a long-range missile launch to ruin his campaign.
North Korea has already been rewarded through its threats. The State Affairs Commission spokesperson’s statement on November 13 hinted that things may return to the way they were in turbulent 2017 if the U.S. did not give them something.
The spokesperson mentioned the then-upcoming U.S.-ROK combined air force drill as a possible concession, and only four days later the U.S. defense secretary announced its postponement.
Did the North welcome this news? No. They said they had demanded a total end to the joint exercises, not a suspension, recognizing their position of strength and taking advantage of Trump’s weakness amid an election campaign.
THE APRIL 2020 SOUTH KOREAN GENERAL ELECTION
North Korea has another major election in mind: the South Korean general election in April, which is looking to be critical for President Moon Jae-in.
It is also crucial for Chairman Kim because the result will dictate Moon’s availability as a cooperative partner in the North Korean leader’s quest for sanctions relief and becoming a de facto nuclear state.
If the ruling Democratic Party loses the election, Mr. Moon may find himself a lame duck president, unable to push his inter-Korean policies forward.
Chairman Kim is likely considering helping Moon in the election, and may take some action, since the ruling party supports engagement with the North while the opposition Liberty Korea Party advocates for hardline policies.
However, inter-Korean relations are currently not all that great, so it’s not the best time to show positivity toward Mr. Moon or the ruling party.
Besides, there are still a couple more months for the North to start on influencing these elections, so the year’s end deadline with the U.S. won’t hold them back in their objectives south of the border.
POTENTIAL IS STILL ALIVE
It may not yet have been decided which option Chairman Kim will choose and what theme he will adopt for his new year’s speech. He is trying to take option number one of a deal with the U.S. that results in being able to push ahead with large-scale economic development next year.
But he won’t budge on his major negotiation points — for example, that denuclearization should be phased and synchronized with sanctions relief, or that the U.S.’s ‘hostile policies’ toward the DPRK be stopped.
If there’s no hope for an acceptable deal with the U.S., he’ll take option number two or three. This decision will be reflected in the new year’s address, and once Kim has decided on that path North Korea will stick to it.
This year-end deadline means a lot to the North and the rest of the world. But there’s still time to change things up, for the North to be persuaded to take option number one — a result that would also be beneficial to South Korea and the United States.
Edited James Fretwell
Featured image: KCNA