SEOUL - North Korea may not have delivered a so-called “Christmas gift” to the United States, at least not on Christmas Day, but U.S.-North Korea tensions appear far from resolved as Pyongyang’s end-of-year deadline for nuclear talks approaches.
There was widespread speculation that North Korea might conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test around the holiday season, after a North Korean foreign ministry official earlier this month cryptically promised a “Christmas gift” to the United States.
But there were no reported weapons tests Wednesday (Christmas Day), and North Korean state media refrained from any major criticism of the United States as of midday Thursday.
The quiet may not last long. North Korea has imposed an end-of-year deadline for the United States to soften its stance on stalled nuclear talks. Two upcoming events on North Korea’s domestic political calendar may also help determine North Korea’s intentions.
Before the end of the year, North Korea’s ruling party is set to hold a meeting of senior politicians, who could announce far-reaching foreign policy decisions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s annual New Year’s Day speech will also be closely watched. In his speech last year, Kim threatened to take his country a “new way” if nuclear talks remain stalled.
Among the more provocative options that Kim could announce, according to analysts: a suspension or termination of negotiations with the United States or the resumption of long-range missile or nuclear tests.
North Korea has for weeks signaled preparations for a major missile launch.
In late November, North Korea warned of a “real ballistic missile” test under the “nose” of Japan. In December, it conducted two engine tests, apparently for long-range rockets.
North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations earlier this month declared that denuclearization is off the negotiating table and that talks with the United States are no longer needed.
A vague ... but viral threat
At one point earlier this month, North Korean state media released almost daily warnings about its end-of-year deadline, including the vague threat about the so-called “Christmas gift.”
“What is left to be done now is the U.S. option and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get,” said Ri Thae Song, vice minister of foreign affairs, in a statement via the Korean Central News Agency on December 3.
The statement never specified what the “gift” would be, when it would be delivered, or what the U.S. must do to avoid receiving it. Nonetheless, the “Christmas gift” became a dominant North Korea media narrative in December, drawing major headlines in international media outlets.
In the leadup to Christmas, the topic was trending on Twitter, both internationally and in the United States, with many users joking about what they would like to accomplish before North Korea delivers its gift.
“Nothing is a better demonstration of how effective North Korea’s public comms tactics are than the fact that we’re all taking the notion of a ‘Christmas present’ so literally/seriously,” Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who focused on the Koreas, said via Twitter.
“I’m not sure North Korea initially intended for the ‘Christmas present’ language to signify ‘expect something right on Christmas.’ Rather, they wanted to heighten the pressure of the end of year deadline in a language they knew we’d understand. But honestly, who knows,” Oba said.
Many analysts criticized the constant speculation, suggesting it was increasing U.S.-North Korea tensions.
“In this regard, it seems that many media and experts are encouraging North Korean provocations, and would in fact like to see them happen,” said Kim Dong-yub, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
Kim also points out that North Korea never said the “Christmas gift” would be an ICBM test.
“If North Korea really wants to launch an ICBM, then they won’t announce it ahead of time,” he said.
According to a report by the U.S.-based Cable News Network (CNN), which cited “a source familiar with the North Korean leadership’s current mindset,” Pyongyang’s “Christmas gift” will likely be a new “hard-line policy toward the United States that involves taking denuclearization off the table.”
Nuclear talks have been stalled since February, when a Hanoi meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump broke down without a deal. The two sides held working-level talks in October, but North Korea walked away and has since boycotted the talks.
Trump has said his personal relationship with Kim remains strong, but has recently offered a less optimistic view of the nuclear talks.
“Everybody’s got surprises for me. But let’s see what happens. I handle it as they come along,” Trump said Tuesday from Florida, where he is spending the holidays.
“Maybe (the Christmas gift) is a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test,” Trump added.
A long-range missile test risks embarrassing Trump, who once declared “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
North Korea this year has conducted 13 rounds of short-range ballistic missile and rocket artillery tests. Trump has downplayed those tests as unimportant.
But Trump has hinted that he would view bigger North Korean provocations as an attempt to interfere in his re-election campaign.
Lee Juhyun contributed to this re port.