North Korea last year threatened to shock the world with an unpleasant “Christmas gift” after nuclear talks broke down with the Trump administration over the North’s covert nuclear programs.
Although the Christmas season came and went without a long-range missile test or fresh nuclear detonation by Pyongyang, national security sources worry that the Christmas gift may become an “October surprise” engineered by North Koreans to capitalize on the rare moment presented by the impending U.S. presidential election.
But analysts are divided on whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime will seek to project power violently or surprise everyone by engaging in sudden diplomatic overtures — or perhaps do both with the ultimate goal of tempting Mr. Trump into a third face-to-face summit.
The potential for escalation by the North this year is real, said former CIA Korea official and Heritage Foundation expert Bruce Klingner. He said the Kim regime may be poised to “raise tensions” with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or nuclear test that would cross a “red line” Mr. Trump set two years ago.
Because the Trump administration has largely ignored Pyongyang’s short-range missile tests over the past 18 months, Mr. Klingner said, the Kim regime “could think, ‘Well, anything less than an ICBM or nuke Trump may just dismiss and therefore we don’t get any leverage from it, so perhaps we have to cross the red line to get that leverage.’”
“If that happens, who knows what the U.S. response would be?” Mr. Klingner told The Washington Times. “Would we be back to ‘fire and fury?’” he asked, referring to Mr. Trump’s threat in 2017, at the height of pre-nuclear talk tensions, to respond with overwhelming force if Pyongyang did not call off aggressive provocations.
“We just don’t know,” said Mr. Klingner, adding that there could be “two October surprises coming.”
“It could be that North Korea raises tensions and that leads to the impetus for diplomatic discussion, and then that could suddenly lead to another summit with Trump,” he said. “So an October surprise is not an either-or paradigm. It could sequential.”
Some are speculating that Mr. Trump may be seek a pre-election surprise to capitalize on his precedent-shattering meetings with Mr. Kim and burnish his foreign policy credentials with U.S. voters.
Former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, in his tell-all memoir about his time in the White House, said Mr. Trump has flirted with the idea of trying to bolster his image as a historic dealmaker by embracing a last-minute summit with Mr. Kim ahead of the November election.
The question, said Scott Snyder, who heads the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, centers on whether the North Koreans will seek to exploit Mr. Trump’s eagerness to extract concessions in exchange for an agreement to another summit, which would come with risks to both sides.
Although Kim Jong-un’s increasingly outspoken sister, Kim Yo-jong, and key nuclear negotiator Choe Son-hui have sharply dismissed the notion of another Trump-Kim summit, Mr. Snyder said in an interview that Pyongyang is keeping “the door open a crack in case Trump wants to leave a gift on the front porch.”
“Kim Yo-jong, specifically, has indicated that a North Korea-U.S. meeting doesn’t look like a good idea to her because Trump could get something out of it politically while North Korea would be left empty-handed,” Mr. Snyder said. “It’s the regime’s way of saying to Trump that if he wants a deal, he’s got to pay. He’s got to bring something with him.”
Analysts generally agree that the North Koreans are seeking the removal of key U.S. sanctions on their economy while preserving at least part of their nuclear deterrent, long seen as critical to the isolated regime’s survival.
The North has been refining its goals and strategies since the public breakdown of the February 2019 Hanoi summit. Mr. Trump said he walked away from that meeting early because Mr. Kim demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of his nuclear arsenal.
More dovish North Korea analysts have advocated for some form of U.S. concession to create an opening for what might later grow into a wider deal with Pyongyang that ultimately removes the nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities that the Kim regime has clandestinely built up over decades in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
But many in the U.S. national security establishment, especially hawkish advisers to the Trump administration, insist that North Korea must begin delivering on complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization before Washington eases sanctions.
The period since Hanoi has been marked by on-again, off-again provocations from Pyongyang, including months of short-range missile launch tests that the Trump administration has largely ignored. Mr. Trump has repeatedly pointed out that, despite the tests, the Kim regime has held to a promise he said Mr. Kim made an the first summit between the two men in June 2018 in Singapore not to carry out any new ICBM or nuclear tests.
In addition to the two high-profile Singapore and Hanoi summits, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim had a brief photo opportunity at the Korean Demilitarization Zone in June 2018, although it did not result in any meaningful restarting of nuclear talks. Negotiations have been stalled at the “working level,” between teams of lower-level officials, for more than a year.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, long a supporter of detente on the divided and heavily armed Korean Peninsula, has pushed to reopen the dialogue, but North Korea’s response has been cold. Mr. Trump’s top nuclear negotiator visited Seoul in early July to discuss ways to break the stalemate with Pyongyang, even as North Korean state media ridiculed the idea of restarting talks.
As Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun was arriving in the South Korean capital, the Kim regime slammed the Moon administration’s calls for renewed dialogue as “nonsensical” and asserted that Seoul had become irrelevant in the peace process.
Mr. Biegun was undeterred. He met with South Korean officials and later with Japanese officials to discuss ways to maintain a united front in the push for a “final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea. Still, analysts say, the Kim regime is focused on staying a step ahead of such efforts.
Mr. Snyder told The Times that talk of an “October surprise” may end up being just talk and that Pyongyang, like much of the rest of the world, is awaiting the outcome of the American vote this fall.
“I personally think the North Koreans have been primarily preparing for a re-engagement in spring 2021, by which time they would present themselves as an entrenched nuclear state and the goal of their engagement would be to have a new U.S. administration accept North Korea’s status as an entrenched nuclear state,” he said.