North Korea is planning to adopt a hard-line policy toward the United States that involves taking denuclearization off the table amid perceptions that President Donald Trump is vulnerable politically, a source familiar with the North Korean leadership’s current mindset told CNN.
The source said this new policy is likely the so-called “Christmas gift” floated by a top North Korean official earlier this month. It is expected to include abandoning negotiations with Washington and consolidating Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear weapons state.
Pyongyang will also no longer pursue sanctions relief as a means of achieving economic development either in the short-term or long-term, but will instead increase its commitment to the state’s ideology of self-reliance, known as Juche.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced in 2018 that North Korea had “completed” its quest to develop nuclear weapons and vowed to fully focus the country’s efforts on economic development and improving the livelihood of his people.
It’s unclear how Trump and his administration would respond to such a decision. After Trump took office in 2017, he and Kim sparred verbally as North Korea test-fired a bevy of increasingly advanced ballistic missiles, the type designed to deliver nuclear warheads.
A flurry of diplomacy that included three in-person meetings between Trump and Kim followed, but working-level negotiations have not made much progress. As the clock has ticked closer to an end-of-year deadline for talks imposed by the North Koreans, the rhetoric on each side has taken on some of the vitriol of 2017.
The source said that Kim is expected to take a “wait and see” approach. This is based on the perception that Trump is politically vulnerable due to his impeachment and the looming 2020 presidential election.
Analysts believe Pyongyang is worried that if it does cut a deal with Trump and he loses in November, his successor may not uphold the accord. North Korea and the United States have reached previous agreements that did not survive successive administrations, and more recently Kim’s diplomats have been quick to cite the Trump administration’s decision to abandon a nuclear deal with Iran as a reason it can’t trust the United States to commit to a long-term accord.
If Trump does win a second term, the North Koreans may be more willing to reengage, the source said. But the bar has definitely been raised for returning to talks with Washington.
Denuclearization, the source said, appears to be off the table for now.
Chances of a missile test ‘very low’
Experts and analysts have speculated that the “Christmas gift” warning could portend some sort of advanced missile launch or satellite test, actions that would likely necessitate a response from the US and other global powers.
Recent commercial satellite photographs appear to show activity at North Korea’s Sohae satellite launch facility and another site linked to the production of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
However, the chances are “very low” that North Korea will actually conduct a provocative test like a satellite launch, firing an ICBM, or detonating a nuclear weapon, because those acts would be considered too provocative for the likes of China and Russia, Pyongyang’s two most important international trading partners, the source said.
Both nations have historical ties to North Korea. China, in particular, is believed to account for almost 90% of North Korea’s imports — a vital lifeline for Pyongyang.
Backdoor supply lines from China and Russia are beginning to reopen, the source said, and the North Koreans are aware that something its most important economic partners view as too extreme could alienate them.
Analysts say while China and Russia want North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, their number one priority is stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Moscow and Beijing have in the past been willing to punish North Korea for its nuclear weapons program development. Both countries approved the punishing international sanctions levied on Pyongyang in 2017 in response to its various missile and nuclear tests.
The source said recent engine tests at the Sohae site helped North Korean scientists “gain valuable knowledge,” but did not cross a red line that would damage relations with China and Russia.
North Korea has conducted a number of shorter-range missile and rocket tests in recent months, a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, but not the agreement reached by Trump and Kim. The North Korean leader only pledged to stop testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
If Kim were to violate his pledge to Trump, that would likely necessitate a response by the US.
“My relationship with Kim Jong Un is really good, but that doesn’t mean he won’t abide by the agreement we signed,” Trump said at the sidelines of a NATO meeting earlier this month.
“I hope he lives up to the agreement, but we’re going to find out,” added Trump.