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2018 is when something finally gives on North Korea

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014.
Reuters/Denis Balibouse
Shifting winds.
By Steve Mollman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

North Korea has long been one of the most secretive nations in the world, and making predictions about it has, correspondingly, long been inadvisable. Keeping that in mind, we’ll make one here anyway: 2018 is when something finally gives on North Korea—one way or another.

It’s unlikely that next year will offer a mere continuation of events in 2017, with North Korea testing ever more advanced weapons, the UN and various nations applying ever stricter sanctions against it, and the rhetoric between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—or “dotard” and “little rocket man”—escalating ever higher.

It seems likely, meanwhile, that North Korea will soon be able to reach all of the US with nuclear weapons that can survive long rocket journeys in working order. Some experts caution it might already be there, despite Trump tweeting “It won’t happen!” in January. Trump has been giving strengthened sanctions more time to work, but he doubts they will and has signaled the US will deploy force if necessary to stop the nuclear threat. China, for its part, is already preparing for the flood of refugees expected to cross its border should chaos break out in neighboring North Korea.

Something has to give.

War in North Korea

The worst-case scenario for next year is that war breaks out. In a recent interview with the Atlantic, US senator (and Trump golf buddy) Lindsey Graham put the odds of Trump using the military option against North Korea at 30%—or 70% if the Kim regime conducts another nuclear test.

There’s little to suggest that North Korea won’t continue testing weapons, including nukes, in 2018. After the nation launched its third ICBM last month, Kim did say “We have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” with “completing” suggesting perhaps less need for further tests. But earlier this month he said that his weapons experts—whom he routinely lionizes in public—will keep making “more latest weapons and equipment” to “bolster up the nuclear force in quality and quantity.”

KCNA via Reuters
Kim Jong-un honoring his weapons experts in September.

Graham in the interview also said that Trump has “100% made up his mind that he’s not gonna let Kim Jong-un break out.” By “break out,” he means achieve the capability to “marry up a missile and a nuclear warhead that can hit America effectively.” It’s still unclear whether North Korea has mastered the technology needed to keep a nuclear warhead intact as it re-enters the atmosphere. Still, North Korea has shown rapid progress with its missile technology, and 2018 looks like the year it could “break out.”

Meanwhile in the US last week, a group of nearly 60 retired admirals and generals signed a letter to the president emphasizing that ”military options must not be the preferred course of action” and that the US “must initiate and lead an aggressive, urgent diplomatic effort to freeze North Korean nuclear and missile development and reduce regional tensions.” They worry the administration plans to order military action in the near future.

Sanctions finally work

North Korea’s economy, somewhat surprisingly given the headlines on tightening sanctions, actually saw solid expansion in 2016. But South Koreans are still more than 20 times better off, and it’s unclear how much of the growth reaches beyond the showcase city of Pyongyang and into the often deeply impoverished countryside.

There have been hints of difficult circumstances. A record number of rickety “ghost ships” from North Korea—often with decomposing bodies aboard—have washed up on Japan’s shores this year, in what’s widely seen as a sign of worsening conditions. Doctors in Seoul found large parasitic worms in the body of a 24-year-old malnourished soldier who defected from North Korea last month, suggesting a dire state of nutrition and hygiene in North Korea. (Another soldier defected this week.)

North Koreans are increasingly aware of the better living conditions in South Korea and China, thanks in part to videos and other goods obtained in black markets. The soldier who defected last month—he escaped across the DMZ while former comrades pelted him with bullets—asked for Choco Pies after doctors saved his life in Seoul. The sugary snack became a black-market luxury item in North Korea after being introduced from South Korea in a joint industrial zone created during a short-lived thaw in relations in 2004.

This increased awareness, combined with the repercussions of ever-tighter sanctions, could lead to more internal pressure on Kim. That could make him more willing to enter negotiations over his weapons programs. It might also result in a coup, though that’s unlikely given Kim’s ruthlessness. More likely, it will prompt him to conduct more purges of high-ranking officials he considers a threat.

But Trump himself, at a rally in Florida this month, cast doubt on (video, at 51:00) whether the sanctions would work while Kim is in charge: “I don’t know that sanctions are gonna work with him. We gotta give it a shot. We’ll see. Who knows.”

H.R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser, said ahead of Trump’s tour of Asia last month that there’s little time left for sanctions to spark serious negotiations. “I think we have to be a little patient here for at least a few months to see what more we and others can do, including China,” he said—but the message from the US president to Asian leaders was that “time is running out.”

Negotiations get underway

Of course it’s unclear what negotiations might look like. The regime considers its nuclear program essential to its survival, having seen what happened to two other regimes once nukes were out of the equation. An editorial published in the state-run news agency KCNA in January reads in part:

History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression… The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the [Muammar] Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.

China, on the other hand, eventually gained the world’s acceptance as a nuclear power after initially causing much consternation in the 1960s with its newfound capabilities. North Korea would like to follow a similar path (paywall) toward acceptance.

The Kim regime might be open to arms-reduction talks, noted John Pike, a military analyst at, to Quartz earlier this year. While the Trump administration has for the most part insisted that North Korea first agree to verifiably give up its nukes before talks even begin, last week secretary of state Rex Tillerson went off script, saying, “We are ready to have the first meeting without preconditions,” aside from a “period of quiet” without new nuclear or missile tests.

The UN, for its part, paid its highest-level visit to North Korea in more than six years this month, sending Jeffrey Feltman, its chief diplomat and undersecretary general for political affairs, to Pyongyang for four days. Describing the trip as “the most important mission I have ever undertaken,” Feltman asked the regime to signal that it was prepared to consider talks. While receiving no immediate commitment, he said, “I think we have left the door ajar and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel has suggested that her country, and she herself, should play a mediating role, with the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers serving as a model for negotiation. (Iran curbed its nuclear work in exchange for the lifting of most sanctions.) The idea has found some favor in South Korea.

China is bracing itself

China, of course, plays a pivotal role in all of this, being North Korea’s giant neighbor and largest trading partner by far. But it’s actually been helped, in some ways, by the stalemate between Pyongyang and Washington. Last year, headlines around the world screamed about the South China Sea crisis, with China claiming vast stretches of water and installing military infrastructure atop natural and manmade islands. This year China has continued making progress there, but with much less unwanted attention, thanks largely to North Korea stealing the spotlight.

An actual crisis in North Korea (as opposed to the looming threat of one) would mean China itself being distracted from the South China Sea, and having to deal with chaos at its border. It would also distract Beijing from what is perhaps its biggest concern of all: Taiwan.

China is worried that self-ruled Taiwan, under president Tsai Ing-wen, wants to officially declare independence. That, it insists, would require a military response. And in September the US Congress passed a bill clearing the way for US warships to visit Taiwanese ports for the first time in decades. A senior Chinese diplomat recently warned that China would invade Taiwan the instant that happened. But an invasion of Taiwan, protected by water, would be no simple matter—something Beijing has kept in mind while establishing its bases in the South China Sea, which could help.

The issues of North Korea and Taiwan have mingled before. In his book Asia’s Cauldron, foreign affairs expert Robert Kaplan noted:

“It was the Korean War of 1950-1953, and China’s epic military involvement in it, that saved Taiwan from an invasion by the mainland at a time when Chiang Kai-shek’s new regime was at its most vulnerable. If over the next quarter century the regime in Pyongyang falters, in whatever way, China would be too tied down with problems in the Korean Peninsula to even contemplate an invasion of Taiwan.”

So the last thing Beijing wants is chaos along its border with North Korea. Yet, tellingly, it’s already preparing for it. The Global Times, a state-run tabloid in China, recently quoted former senior military officer Wang Hongguang as saying that “the war on the Korean Peninsula might break out anytime between now and March next year. China should be psychologically prepared for a potential Korean war, and the Northeast China regions should be mobilized for that.”

Plenty of crossing points to the north.

Meanwhile Chinese military forces, both at sea and on land, have conducted recent military exercises near North Korea. A state-run newspaper in the Jilin province, which borders North Korea, recently ran a piece offering tips on what to do in the event of a radiation emergency resulting from a nuclear war.

China is also reportedly building a network of camps to deal with a potential refugee crisis. Tillerson mentioned last week that Chinese authorities “already are taking preparatory actions” if North Korean refugees flood across the border.

Meanwhile, Beijing has talked with Washington about how the two nations should cooperate in the event of chaos in North Korea, according to additional comments made last week by Tillerson. The US assured China, he said, that while troops would land in North Korea to find and neutralize nuclear weapons, they would retreat back to South Korea after completing their mission. Then, what became of North Korea’s territory—with its vast mineral wealth, a nontrivial factor—and its 25 million people would be issues more for Beijing and Seoul (and presumably North Koreans) to sort out.

Until recently it would have been unthinkable for China to engage in such talks with the US. That it’s happening now suggests change could be imminent.

Tacit acceptance

Or maybe not. In foreign policy, Trump has been accused of “speaking loudly and carrying a small stick,” in which he harangues or threatens foreign leaders, promises drastic policy changes, and then, in the end, backtracks or backs down. He’s often been accused of doing that with China, most recently this week. He could be behaving similarly with North Korea.

It’s possible that a year from now not much will have changed: no war, no talks, no significant results from sanctions. The Kim regime could still be routinely testing ever-better missiles and the occasional nuclear bomb. Perhaps it will have even demonstrated it can “break out” by exploding a nuclear missile somewhere over the Pacific, as it’s threatened to do, and received nothing but admonishments from leaders and environmentalists—and interest from rogue states and shady groups in buying such weapons.

If we find ourselves in the same place this time next year, it’s possible to see that as a standstill. But another read could be that North Korea has inched closer to gaining the world’s tacit acceptance of its status as a nuclear-weapons power. That, too, would represent a significant shift in 2018.

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