rocketman

By James Jay Carafano | Fox News

Everyone anticipates North Korea  dominating the foreign policy news between now and the New Year. The DPRK has repeatedly affirmed that it will take action if the U.S. doesn’t change its demand for a deal that delivers denuclearization of North Korea’s nuclear arsenals. It’s anybody’s guess what happens next. 

 The worst way to deal with the regime in Pyongyang is to presume you know what they are thinking or what they will do next. Let’s stick to what we know for sure. 

 Recently, the DPRK promised an unwelcome “Christmas present” if the U.S. didn’t prove more flexible in negotiations and amenable to lifting sanctions sooner rather than later. To make the point, North Korea announced the successful test of a long-range rocket engine. Many believe that what’s up next could be an ICBM missile test.

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Of course, it’s weird that a country that mercilessly persecuted and oppressed Christians invokes Christmas, to begin with, but that’s par for the course with Kim, the DPRK’s Dear Leader. Needling, threatening, blustering and bullying are an established part of North Korean diplomacy. 

 This could be Kim testing Trump. That’s nothing new. Likely as not, this has nothing to do with the U.S. president being in a weakened position over impeachment.

 For well over a year now, North Korea has been poking to see if they could ween the U.S. off the maximalist position of sanctions relief only in conjunction with a full denuclearization deal. This effort predates the dust-up over Trump’s Ukraine phone call. 

 Further, Trump shows no signs of looking like a president weakened or distracted by impeachment as evidenced by a strong performance at the meeting of NATO leaders.

 For the U.S.’s part, the president dispatched chief negotiator Steve Biegun to South Korea to confer with our ally. Biegun seemed to send pretty clear signals that the U.S. negotiating strategy is to stand pat. 

The fact is, if North Korea bolts from the negotiations, the U.S. will rely on the maximum pressure campaign to protect US interests — and that will likely be a sufficient check on Kim’s blustering.

 Further, if North Korea did resume long-range missile and nuclear testing, the most likely U.S. response would be a repeat of how Washington acted last time: heaping even more sanctions and possibly some demonstration of U.S. military might and resolve — perhaps more flyovers and ship deployments.

 The fact is, if North Korea bolts from the negotiations, the U.S. will rely on the maximum pressure campaign to protect US interests — and that will likely be a sufficient check on Kim’s blustering. 

 There is little likelihood that domestic politics will constrain the U.S. response. Some, inevitably, will accuse the administration of taking a “wag-the-dog” response, using a foreign policy crisis to distract from domestic turmoil, no matter what the White House does. But that’s just folks who have seen too many movies. 

 Domestically, the U.S. response isn’t likely to move the electorate. How do we know this? Because we have been through this before. Folks love or hate Trump, but they don’t process their choice through a filter of North Korean policy. 

 Odds are, this will be another spat of testing and poking by both sides. Yes, of course, it’s all fun and games until someone starts a war. It’s never smart to be sanguine about confrontation on the Korean peninsula. Over the holidays, the White House needs to keep the A-team on speed dial. 

 On the other hand, those of us who believe in the reason for the season believe in miracles. There is a real opportunity here for both sides to break the log jam — to agree to a full denuclearization plan that starts with a full and verifiable declaration of nuclear assets and puts in a phased implementation process that meets the requirements of both sides — assuring that, in the end, the peninsula isn’t nuclear, and North Korea has normalized relations with the rest of the world. 

 Such a deal won’t solve all the problems, but it would be a huge Christmas gift to the world — and above all, a true blessing to all the Korean people. 

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation.

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