North Korea’s year-end deadline isn’t a bluff

An ICBM takes off in North Korea in late 2017.
An ICBM takes off in North Korea in late 2017.
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North Korea warned in April that it would give the US until year’s end to be “more flexible” in denuclearization talks. Since then it’s continued with the warning, including recently when high-ranking official Kim Yong Chol said that ignoring the deadline “would be a mistake.”

Yet one key US diplomat seemed unaware of it. David R. Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said at a recent event in Tokyo, “I don’t remember a time being set,” while admitting that he was “not completely up to speed on that particular aspect.” He added that the North Koreans often “bluff” and said they should “not set artificial deadlines.”

The answer received swift criticism from North Korea experts. Vipin Narang, a professor of security studies at MIT, tweeted this week that Stilwell “will come ‘up to speed’ when Kim launches an ICBM to ring in the new year I guess,” referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

North Korea’s threats about what might happen after the deadline have been vague. But historical patterns are worth paying attention to. Kim Jong Un tends to set the nation’s course during his New Year’s speech, now less than 60 days away.

Last month, state media showed Kim riding a white horse on Mount Paektu (the ruling family’s supposed spiritual home), noting that the officials who accompanied him were “convinced that there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again.”

Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, told Reuters that Kim’s alpine trip was “a statement, symbolic of defiance,” adding that “the pursuit of sanctions relief is over. Nothing is made explicit here, but it starts to set new expectations about the coming course of policy for 2020.”

In January 2017, Kim said in his New Year’s speech that North Korea was close to testing an ICBM. Three ICBM launches followed, including one 11 months later that appeared to put all of the US within range.

The Kim regime has indeed been known to bluff. But the importance of the year-end deadline, and the New Year’s address, is real.

This essay was originally published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter. Sign up for it here.