It used to be North Korea that was facing maximum pressure, not exerting it.
Pyongyang conducted its second ballistic missile test in a week Thursday, escalating tensions with Washington that have been growing since the collapse of a second round of talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.
While attempting to assign cause for North Korea’s actions is often a losing game, it is surely no coincidence that the tests comes off the back of Kim’s successful first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump, meanwhile, is facing difficulties on a range of foreign fronts.
It used to be that whenever Trump confronted trouble at home – be it the Russia probe, various scandals or pressure from Congress – that he could pivot to his foreign policy successes.
He forced China into a corner on trade with aggressive tariffs few critics expected to work, won support from even Democrats for regime change efforts in Venezuela, and, most of all, after decades of tensions he became the first US President to sit down with a North Korean leader to plot a course towards denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
But now the trade war is potentially escalating out of control, after Beijing overplayed its hand and meetings intended to help get things back on course fell through, leading to new tariffs on China which will also hit US businesses and consumers.
Trump is also reportedly souring on his Venezuela policy, too, after self-declared interim president Juan Guaido’s latest coup attempt failed and “tough cookie” Nicholas Maduro proved his support and staying power is stronger than anyone in Washington thought.
Meanwhile, the clock appears to have turned back on the North Korea relationship, with Pyongyang testing weapons and firing off missiles in defiance of United Nations sanctions, in an apparent attempt to force Trump to make the concessions he was unwilling to make during his last meeting with Kim.
More than anything else, North Korea wants relief from the oppressive international and US sanctions that have savaged its economy and put a stranglehold on growth. Trump cut short his last meeting with Kim in Hanoi after the North Korean leader demanded all sanctions be lifted for further progress on denuclearization, saying “sometimes you have to walk.”
But with Pyongyang ramping up the pressure, Trump will eventually have to blink – one way or another. Either he returns to his policy of “maximum pressure,” threatening North Korea with potential military action if it continues missile and potentially even nuclear testing, or he agrees to reopen the topic of sanctions relief.
Its unclear in which direction Washington is leaning. Trump said after the latest missile launch that North Korea was not “ready to negotiate,” suggesting he doesn’t see any reason to restart talks. But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, previously blamed by Pyongyang for hurting negotiations, has been downplaying the importance of the recent launches, saying North Korea only ever agreed to abstain from testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting US territory.
North Korea’s current hand is a strong one, even if the potential risks of overplaying it are very real.
Trump is caught up with numerous other issues, and he can likely not afford a rapid escalation of tensions that would be a tacit admission that his entire strategy towards Pyongyang has been a failure.
Washington’s two other levers for pulling on North Korea, its neighbors in China and South Korea, are also likely not feasible. China is not going to exert any pressure on Kim on Trump’s behalf in the middle of a trade war, and the North Korean leader has made it clear that he blames South Korea in part for the general worsening of relations, particularly Seoul’s decision to go ahead with recent joint military drills with the US.
“It is important to understand before it becomes too late that it will be hard to expect any progress in the North-South ties and any result of peace and prosperity, as long as the war-like South Korean military forces are left intact in their disguised persistent hostile acts including the resumption of the joint military exercises with the US,” Kim said after the May 4 launch.
After the latest test, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was once in the driving seat of the entire peace process, could only issue a rather lame warning that if North Korea “repeats such behavior, it can make the current dialogue and negotiation more difficult.”
“North Korea seems to be quite dissatisfied that the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi ended without an agreement,” Moon said in an interview with Korean media. “So I judge that the launch is a protest against both the US and South Korea. I also think that it is intended as pressure to push forward the denuclearization dialogue in the direction they want.”
Pyongyang has also gained a solid new backer: Russia. Kim and Putin did not sign any agreements, but the meeting in Vladivostok appears to have been a successful one.
According to Michael Elleman, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a UK-based think tank with ties to the defense industry, the missiles used it Pyongyang’s recent tests “look remarkably like those of a Russian-produced Iskander.”
While he said it was possible North Korea had imported the missile from elsewhere or matched the Russian design, the most likely explanation is that it bought them direct from Moscow.
“If North Korea did in fact import Iskanders from Russia, it has an existing capacity to deliver warheads to targets in South Korea with great precision, and an ability to penetrate existing missile defenses deployed in the South,” Elleman said.
Running out the clock?
So far, Trump’s reaction to North Korea’s latest tests has been rather muted. “Nobody’s happy about it,” he said, but added, “the relationship continues.” Rocket man, this ain’t.
Pyongyang may have calculated correctly that Trump is unwilling to let his signature foreign policy success slip through his fingers, and it may be able to be forced back to the negotiating table.
But as China found out to its detriment this week – and indeed, as Kim found out in Hanoi – this is not a President who reacts well to threats or attempts to rewrite terms at the last minute.
Pyongyang may also be playing a longer game. It has shown in the past that it is perfectly willing to wait out difficult US Presidents and wait for a change in leadership that will give it a chance to restart negotiations and earn more time to shore up its military capabilities.
On Sunday, Trump accused China of seeking to renegotiate on trade because it hoped to get a better deal from his potential Democratic successor post 2020. While many analysts have observed that North Korea had potentially the best US President it was going to get in Trump, due to his willingness to break with tradition and desire to make an historic deal, Pyongyang may feel that it has struck out and is better off trying President number 46.
While no US leader has ever sat down with their North Korean counterpart before Trump, now that the precedent has been made, Pyongyang will know that future Presidents will not see it as such an impossible step.
At least one Democratic frontrunner, Bernie Sanders, has praised Trump for sitting down with Kim, and indicated he would be happy to do the same if he becomes President.
Ultimately, Trump is dealing with a problem all superpowers have – the larger you are, the more stretched your foreign policy becomes. Whereas Kim only has comparatively laser focused goals, and a good instinct for any opportunity he has to advance them.