WASHINGTON - North Korea's "Christmas gift" might be still to come as Pyongyang is likely to ramp up military tensions and the threats of missile launches to gain concessions from the U.S., said experts, as tensions heighten on the Korean peninsula.
"I think we would be a bit premature in saying that North Korea did not deliver a 'Christmas gift,'" said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. research center, adding that the North Korean leader "could still commit a provocation of some kind in the coming days and call it a 'Christmas gift.'"
Although North Korea has not sent a "Christmas gift" it warned of earlier in December, the U.S. is continuing to monitor actively for any signs of provocations on the Korean peninsula amidst concerns that it would launch a long-range missile.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the U.S. is "watching what [the North Koreans] are doing here in the closing days of this year."
The U.S. has intensified its surveillance on North Korea for several weeks by sending a spy plane flying over the peninsula to monitor activities that could indicate North Korean threats.
White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said on Sunday that the U.S. is prepared to take action if North Korea delivers a "Christmas gift." On ABC's "This Week," O'Brien said, "If [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un takes that approach, we'll be extraordinarily disappointed, and we'll express that disappointment."
Pyongyang made the warning about the "gift" as it issued a series of ultimatums that demanded the U.S. change its negotiating stance in denuclearization talks by the end of the year. Otherwise, Pyongyang said it will seek a "new way."
At a ruling Workers' Party meeting on Sunday, Kim urged his military to take unspecified "positive and offensive measures" as he instructed actions in "the fields of foreign affairs, munitions industries and armed forces."
Experts think a tense military situation on the Korean peninsula will likely continue as it will raise provocations starting with medium-range missiles.
Bennett said he expects North Korea to start with "a modest escalation" in the coming months and escalate to more aggressive threats later next year.
"I think North Korea would pursue a more serious escalation like an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test later in 2020," said Bennett. "It would likely be a bad idea. It could push President [Donald] Trump across a major retaliation threshold."
North Korea conducted 13 missile tests since May and twice tested rocket engines earlier in December that experts believe are for long-range missiles.
"What Kim Jong Un is trying to do is to be able to operate within that gray zone, where he can conduct provocations without crossing any red line," said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and current fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The U.S. has not publicly stated what the red line is, but experts think testing a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile could draw a strong U.S. action.
A kind of North Korean provocation that Maxwell said will certainly prompt the U.S. to take a military counteraction against the country would be testing a nuclear tipped long-range missile.
"If [the North Koreans] demonstrate that they can put a nuclear weapon on an ICBM, that completely changes the calculus," said Maxwell.
He continued, "If they were able to do that, what that means is that we would have to assume every future ICBM launch could have a nuclear weapon on it and could target the United States. And then we would have to consider conducting a preemptive strike to defend the United States from a nuclear attack."
Aside from testing missiles, North Korea could raise other kinds of threats using its military, according to Maxwell.
"I think they will use the military as part of their tools for provocations when they deem it necessary and productive from a North Korean strategic perspective," said Maxwell.
After conducting its second test in December, Pak Jong Chon, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean People's Army, on Dec. 14, said, "Our army is fully ready to thoroughly carry out any decision of the Supreme Leader [Kim] with action."
Pak said earlier in December that North Korea could use its military force against the U.S. as "the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the U.S. only."
The statement was made in reaction to Trump's remarks of using possible military forces against North Korea. On Dec. 3, Trump said, "We have the most powerful military we've ever had." He continued, "And hopefully, we don't have to use it. But if we do, we'll use it."
North Korea held a military meeting on Dec. 22 to discuss "military steps to bolster up the overall armed force of the country." Kim guided the meeting.
The kinds of military threats Maxwell said North Korea could raise include large-scale maneuver exercises along the inter-Korean border of the demilitarized zone. It could also carry out artillery firing and military buildup of islands north of an inter-Korean maritime demarcation line in the West Sea.
"All of those are indications of things that could take place from a conventional military perspective, again, to raise tensions, and use provocations to gain political and economic concessions," said Maxwell.
In November, Kim Jong Un ordered his troops to practice artillery drills on the inter-Korean border island of Changrin. Back in 2010, North Korea fired artillery shots from the same island at a South Korean island, killing four people.
Kim's goal of raising provocations is to extract sanctions relief from the U.S., according to Maxwell, who said Kim is believed to be under increasing pressure from his regime after the failed February summit in Hanoi where Trump denied Kim's demand for sanctions relief.
"Kim Jong Un, I think, is under a lot of pressure because he has failed to get sanctions relief," said Maxwell. "He feels he has to do something and try to force the United States to make concessions."
If pressure coming from his government threatens his leadership, Bennett said Kim could take the drastic action of launching an attack against South Korea.
"If [Kim] thinks he's about to be overthrown by his military or security service, he may decide to go to war in an effort to rally everyone behind him," said Bennett. "If the North decided to do something like that, the North Korean regime is probably in trouble already, facing internal problems because they would be taking a serious risk."