Facing an impeachment inquiry, U.S. President Donald Trump is unlikely to make any new decisions on North Korea even as Pyongyang has elevated warnings to pressure Washington to grant greater concessions on stalled denuclearization talks by the end of the year, experts said.
“Right now, [Trump] has very little political space to work in,” because of the impeachment inquiry, said Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at the CNA research center. “I don’t think he’s going to waste political capital on North Korea” he continued, adding Washington “would not react [to Pyongyang’s threats] by agreeing to sanctions relief.”
Pyongyang has increased pressure on Washington in apparent attempts to change the U.S. position by the end of the year through a series of warnings that included a missile launch Thursday.
North Korea said it tested “a super-large multiple rocket launcher” according to state media Korean Central News Agency Friday.
The projectile landed in North Korea’s eastern sea Thursday and was Pyongyang’s 12th launch since May.
Following the launch, a senior State Department official said, “We are aware of reports of a North Korean missile launch” adding that the U.S. is continuing to monitor the situation in close consultation with Japan and South Korea. Seoul issued a statement of a “strong concern” after the launch.
Before the launch, North Korea issued verbal warnings demanding the U.S. abide by the-end-of-the-year deadline Pyongyang set for Washington to change its position in stalemated denuclearization talks.
The talks remained deadlocked after the breakdown of the working-level negotiations in Stockholm earlier in October. Pyongyang has been demanding sanctions relief since the Hanoi Summit in February while Washington has been looking for full denuclearization before lifting sanctions.
North Korean official Kim Yong Chol said the U.S. would be “seriously mistaken” to ignore the end of the year deadline and warned “there can be the exchange of fire at any moment” through a statement issued on Sunday by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Choe Ryong Hae, the president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, urged the U.S. to drop its policy because its current stance puts North Korea at a “critical crossroads,” according to the KCNA report issued on Tuesday. Choe is considered the second most powerful man of North Korea after leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korea on a clock
Gause thinks Pyongyang is becoming increasingly desperate to change Washington’s reluctance to lift sanctions as North Korea sees the impeachment inquiry as hobbling Trump’s ability to grant any concessions.
The North Koreans “are trying to ramp up the pressure now to try to get sanctions relief locked in before Trump’s hands are completely tied because of the impeachment,” Gause said. “They’re hoping for the best to try to get something out of Trump before he completely disengages. In other words, they’re on a clock.”
Trump has been under increasing domestic pressure since September when the Democrats in the House launched an impeachment inquiry against him that accelerated Thursday as the House voted on procedural rules on holding the inquiry.
The impeachment probe aims to find out whether Trump withheld foreign aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden, vice president in the Obama administration, for any information that could tarnish his bid for the White House. Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to run in the 2020 presidential election.
Experts think the impeachment inquiry will hinder Trump from making any politically risky moves to maneuver concessions to North Korea as he would be wary of triggering congressional opposition and further scrutiny.
Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction in the Obama administration, said, “The impeachment [inquiry] will probably limit President Trump’s freedom to make additional concessions to North Korea because the Republican senators who will vote on impeachment have more power to oppose such concessions.”
Gause said, “I don’t think he’s willing to take any more moves that’s going to put him out of sync with the Republican establishment” that “does not want to do a deal with North Korea.”
However, Douglas Paal, distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, “I have not sensed the impeachment is as important in the North’s thinking as is next year’s election.”
Impeachment or election
Pyongyang set the end of the year deadline before the House Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry.
In his New Year’s speech, North Korea’s Kim said the U.S. should stop “imposing sanctions and pressure” on Pyongyang and, in April, he gave Washington until the end of the year to make a “bold decision.”
North Korea set the deadline earlier this year “because they were looking at probably the 2020 election at the time,” according to Gause.
“They wanted to have enough time to get the benefit of sanctions relief before another president possibly comes into the White House and slaps the sanctions right back on, which potentially could happen if Trump is defeated in 2020,” Gause said. “I think they wanted to have at least a year of sanctions relief before they had to face a new president.”
Alexander Vershbow, who served as an ambassador to South Korea during the George W. Bush administration, said, “I’m not sure if North Korea could count on permanent sanctions relief even if Trump made some kind of desperate move” for a claim in foreign policy success. He continued, “It could be reversed by Congress within a matter of months. It’s not just up to the next administration to reverse it.”
Samore thinks Kim would be careful to not heighten tensions to the point at which it could diminish Trump’s chances for reelection.
“Kim Jong Un probably hopes that President Trump will be reelected, so he will be reluctant to take actions that would hurt Trump’s domestic position, such as resuming nuclear and long-range missile tests,” Samore said.
Trump was the first U.S. president to deal directly with Kim through three face-to-face meetings starting with the historic Singapore Summit in June 2018 and including the impromptu inter-Korean summit in June this year.
Gause thinks the North Koreans may have painted themselves into a corner by setting the deadline in hopes of getting sanctions relief from Trump.
“They thought they had that lined up in Hanoi,” Gause said. “They also had a thought that maybe in Stockholm, they were going to get something. And now, they’re finding out the U.S. is taking a hard line, which really puts them in a very difficult position for getting any sort of sanctions relief.”
Despite Pyongyang’s deadline pressure, Michael O’Hanlon, research director at the Brookings Institution, said, “The United States should make reasonable policy proposals without regard to the time frame” set by Pyongyang.
Vershbow thinks offering concessions would prompt Pyongyang to increase its demands.
“The U.S. needs to signal readiness to continue negotiations, picking up on where things were in Stockholm and try to put the North Koreans on the defensive that they didn’t engage seriously in that meeting and negotiations about reciprocal compromise, not one-sided concessions,” said Vershbow. “Showing weakness at this time would be counterproductive. It may only escalate North Korean demands.”