United States waits to see what Kim’s ‘Christmas gift’ will be

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That restraint may not last much longer as North Korea hints darkly that it will make a major move by the end of this month, possibly including a long-range missile launch or a nuclear bomb test as a “Christmas gift” to the US.

“It’s hard to get a rise out of someone if they keep turning the other cheek,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said of Mr Trump’s responses so far. “I think he’d be willing to downplay even bigger provocations until they cross the line, and then after that really we don’t know.”

A return to intercontinental ballistic missile launches or nuclear tests could send US-North Korea ties back to where they were in 2017, when tensions surged and analysts worried about a military conflict. It would also undermine what Mr Trump considers one of his key foreign policy achievements as he faces impeachment and heads into an election year.

At the crux of the president’s calculations is whether it is worthwhile to keep pressing North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to negotiate even though he’s no closer to giving up his nuclear weapons 18 months after the US hailed a summit between the two men in Singapore as a major breakthrough. Analysts argue the potential threat posed by North Korea is so grave Mr Trump has no choice but to keep trying.

“It’s been said, ‘Don’t be afraid to go on a wild goose chase, because that’s what they made wild geese for,'” Mr Klingner said. “You can’t just throw up your hands and surrender.”

So far the president has refused to be drawn into action by repeated North Korean missile and engine tests – even when they violate United Nations resolutions – so long as Mr Kim keeps honouring a self-imposed moratorium on testing a nuclear device or launching a long-range missile that could reach the US.

At most, Mr Trump has revived his “Rocket Man” nickname for Mr Kim and boasted “we have the most powerful military we’ve ever had” and if necessary “we’ll use it”.

The administration’s top North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, was expected to meet UN Security Council representatives yesterday in New York ahead of their planned discussion about developments on the peninsula.

The president’s objective, according to numerous people familiar with the US strategy, is to deny North Korea an excuse to take more consequential action while sticking to his refusal to ease sanctions without a firm commitment from Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal.

Among the options to respond to a North Korean provocation would be the US could revive joint military drills with South Korea that it pulled back on Mr Trump’s orders, or new sanctions could be imposed on foreign banks and other businesses – mostly in China – that still do business with North Korea.

For now, Mr Trump continues to flatter Mr Kim and highlight their supposed personal relationship, as he has done for many months.

“Kim Jong-un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Mr Trump tweeted on December 8.

“North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearise as promised.”

That leaves unanswered what North Korea will do if Mr Trump holds firm to the US refusal to relax its “maximum pressure” sanctions regime – and what Mr Trump would do if it defies warnings against testing long-range missiles or a nuclear bomb.

“It is entirely up to the US what Christmas gift it will select to get,” said North Korean diplomat Ri Thae-song.

Mr Kim will have to weigh any escalation against possibly putting ties with China at risk, or inviting tougher sanctions. (© Bloomberg)

Irish Independent

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