With North Korea signaling bigger provocations in 2020, some analysts worry the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, could overplay his hand and make a dangerous miscalculation, especially if Kim believes he can affect U.S. President Donald Trump's reelection chances.
North Korea has set an end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to offer more concessions in nuclear talks, and promised Washington a sinister “Christmas gift,” possibly a long-range missile test, which could upset nearly two years of diplomacy between Trump and Kim.
The moves suggest an emboldened Kim believes he can hold out for a better deal, possibly because he sees Trump as weakened by impeachment and a tough reelection campaign that is set to enter a more intense phase.
Trump, who has portrayed his outreach to Kim as a major foreign policy victory, has at times directly linked North Korea with his 2020 reelection chances, despite little if any evidence suggesting it will be a major issue for U.S. voters.
North Korea hasn’t explicitly threatened to interfere with the election. However, its state media accuse the U.S. of deliberately prolonging the nuclear talks to preserve a Trump foreign policy win during election season. North Korean officials have also said Trump is “very fretful” and must be in “great jitters” about what Pyongyang is about to do following Kim’s end-of-year deadline.
“They truly believe they can influence the presidential election in November,” said Bong Young-shik, who teaches at Seoul’s Sogang University. “North Koreans think the world revolves around North Korea… it’s a very unfortunate miscalculation and misunderstanding.”
Trump takes credit... but for what?
North Korea's confidence may stem in part from Trump, who at times portrays the stalled nuclear talks as having already succeeded.
After his initial summit with Kim in 2018, Trump famously declared, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” In reality, North Korea never agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and has been steadily increasing its arsenal, according to experts.
Trump has also taken credit for Kim’s self-imposed, two-year-long moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests. By threatening to end that suspension, Kim appears to be trying to bolster his leverage.
Earlier this month, Trump directly warned Kim against provocations during the U.S. presidential campaign.
“I’d be surprised if North Korea acted hostilely," Trump said in early December. "He knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that, but we’ll have to see.”
Not a big factor in 2020
Trump’s statement appeared to grant Kim leverage many believe he would not otherwise possess. Polls have long suggested domestic, not foreign policy, issues are typically the most important in U.S. presidential elections.
Only 3% of registered U.S. voters said foreign policy is the top issue facing the country, according to a May poll by RealClearPolitics. Healthcare, the economy, immigration, education, and the environment all were chosen as bigger priorities, respectively.
According to exit poll data from the 2016 presidential election, only about 13% of voters said foreign policy was the most important issue.
Ahead of that election, voters overwhelmingly said that Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump, would make better foreign policy decisions, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
“North Korea is extremely low on the list of key issues that are determining the next election,” John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said. “It would take a war really for North Korea to have an impact on who the next American president is,” he said.
Based on his conversations with North Koreans, Delury agrees that Pyongyang likely thinks it can sway U.S. voters by ramping up tensions during the election. That could be a dangerous miscalculation, he warned.
“A provocation at this stage will have a conventional, security, or even military response, and they’ll be surprised because they thought they were able to play U.S. domestic politics, when in fact they’re not,” Delury said. “Everyone knows the election is not about North Korea.”
In 2017, Trump exchanged nicknames and threats of nuclear war with Kim. At one point, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. Reports suggested the Trump administration was considering a preemptive military attack on North Korea — a so-called “bloody nose” strike — in what some described as an attempt to deter North Korea from further provocations.
According to a recently released book, Trump told author Doug Wead that he was serious about his North Korea threat.
“You only say this if you are ready to act on it. It was unbelievably close,” Trump was quoted as saying in the book.
Trump shrugs off deadline
So far, Trump has not addressed North Korea’s deadline. In fact, Trump has rarely mentioned North Korea over the past several months, even as it ramped up threats and conducted a series of short-range missile tests.
“He wants to be able to say he made a deal. I think that’s the big thing he’s after,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump family biographer who has followed Trump’s real estate and other deals for decades.
Blair said Trump is not likely to welcome any reminder that his North Korea policy has not resulted in Kim giving up his nuclear weapons.
“He wants to hang on to that [win] as a bullet point,” she said, adding, “he can’t engage with anything that might threaten that.”
It's not clear how Trump would respond to a major North Korea provocation, such as a long-range missile or nuclear test.
Senior U.S. military officials have said they are closely watching North Korea as the deadline approaches.
Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week acknowledged the North Korean threats, stressing the U.S. is "prepared for whatever."