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The past few days have been marked by interesting developments in both Washington and Pyongyang. Both the U.S. and the DPRK are, it seems, beginning a bellicose war dance once again.
For the last two years they have uncharacteristically traded smiles and (rather empty) promises, and now they are returning to their more familiar styles of exchanging threats and insults.
This week, Kim Jong Un returned to Mount Paektu, where he was again photographed by official media riding a majestic white horse. According to the official myth, which every North Korean is supposed to believe, this mountain was the location of the great guerrilla exploits of the Supreme Leader’s grandfather, and also the birthplace of his father.
This is a shamelessly fake history (Kim’s father was born at a Soviet military base near Khabarovsk), but this does not matter. Decades of propaganda have turned Mount Paektu into a symbol of the harsh and unbreakable militant spirit of the Korean revolution.
The message was clear: by riding a horse there, for the second time in less than two months, Kim Jong Un is seeking to demonstrate that he is the true heir to the spirit of his glorious ancestors and a great and tough general.
In it, he reminded Washington that “drawing nearer is the year-end time limit the DPRK set for the U.S. […] What is left to be done now is the U.S. option and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”
President Trump’s reaction to these diplomatic threats soon followed, and he reminded everybody that force can be used against North Korea if necessary.
“Now we have the most powerful military we’ve ever had and we’re by far the most powerful country in the world. And, hopefully, we don’t have to use it, but if we do, we’ll use it. If we have to, we’ll do it,” he said.
However, it is also remarkable that neither side reverted to the personal insults they had used with remarkable ease just a couple of years prior.
In 2017, Donald Trump reminded everybody that Kim Jong Un was “short and fat” while North Korean media described Donald Trump as “dotard” – and, of course, in those days both sides threatened to destroy one another with “fire” (“fire and fury” in the U.S.’s case, just “fire” in the case of North Korea).
While the statement was purposefully nebulous, few observers doubted that the North had hinted it would return to its trademark bellicosity if the U.S. was unwilling to provide Pyongyang with necessary concessions.
“Drawing nearer is the year-end time limit the DPRK set for the U.S.”
And what is the compromise Pyongyang hopes for? It likely includes a partial dismantlement and/or freeze of the North Korean nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of the UN’s “sectoral” (that is, economy-oriented) sanctions.
Such a deal was – and still is – viewed in Washington with deep suspicion. If implemented, it would see the U.S. surrender all its meaningful leverage, while the North Koreans would still keep some nuclear weapons research and production facilities, as well as dozens of ready-to-use nuclear warheads. As a result, the U.S. has refused to do what the North Koreans want.
The North Koreans want sanctions lifted badly. While, contrary to oft-repeated claims, the UN-led sanctions have not undermined the North Korean economy (generous Chinese aid mitigates their impact, among other things), they have slowed the country’s economic development.
As a result, the North Koreans want “sectoral sanctions” lifted, and they understand that Donald Trump is more likely to accept their conditions than any conventional U.S. President.
But since it is patently clear that their demands will not be met in the remaining three weeks of December, the North Koreans have decided to go back to their old tactics: to manufacture a crisis, in order to then be rewarded for their willingness to roll the situation back.
Right now, they are making warnings and threats, as they are not going to break their promises and will certainly wait until the end-of-year deadline (which they may believe expires on Christmas).
The White House, fully cognizant of what’s going to happen, also relies on the old tactics: Donald Trump and his people have begun to make veiled threats which roughly match those of their North Korean counterparts.
So, it seems that a new crisis is in the making. Should we start worrying? Perhaps, but only within reasonable limits.
To start with, U.S. bellicosity should not be taken at face value. During a recent crisis in the Middle East, where drones controlled by Iran and its proxies attacked a Saudi Arabian oil field, Donald Trump demonstrated that his tough talk is just that. In a situation where the risk of escalation is high, he is likely to stop before the shooting starts. He loves tough rhetoric, but not tough action.
Unfortunately for Trump, this is understood in Pyongyang, too. Back in 2017, the U.S. President’s threats were taken seriously. Now, his bellicosity is likely to be ignored and ridiculed.
To start with, U.S. bellicosity should not be taken at face value
But what about North Korea, what should we expect them to do in this new situation? They will do their best to look dangerous and irrational, to be sure, but it would also be a mistake to take their rhetoric too seriously.
After all, the North Korean goal is not to terrify the Americans for the sheer pleasure of it, and they launch missiles and test nuclear devices not because they like the aesthetics of the process.
Their goal has not changed: they want the Americans back at the negotiation table. They still need a deal that will serve their interests – above all, in regard to sanctions relief.
But as they have not been able to find a sufficiently sweet carrot to get what they want, they will stick to the stick for now.
This means that their bellicosity will be measured and calculated. They will do a lot to annoy the U.S., but they will hardly cross what they themselves secretly see as “red lines.”
They want Donald Trump to feel uncomfortable, but they do not want him to be really angry. They want to press him, but they would still prefer to see him re-elected.
All this means that early next year we are likely to be treated to a new spectacular show, titled “The Korean Peninsula on the Brink of War.”
Missiles will fly, aircraft carrier groups will steam to the peninsula at full speed, and insults will be traded. Even a nuclear explosion or two is possible. The rhetorical preparations have already begun.
It will be a great performance, but at the end of the day, one should not worry excessively.
Each side will bark a lot, but neither will bite. At least, this is what their intentions are, even though such noisy campaigns can sometimes get out of control, and hence are better to be avoided.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.