SEOUL - U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday downplayed the possibility that North Korea could launch a ballistic missile on Christmas, joking that he instead could get a "nice vase" as a gift from the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
North Korea has cryptically promised a "Christmas gift" to the U.S., apparently as part of its efforts to increase pressure on Washington ahead of Pyongyang’s end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to soften its stance on nuclear talks.
"We’ll find out what the surprise is and we’ll deal with it very successfully," Trump said Tuesday from Florida, where he is spending the holidays. "Everybody’s got surprises for me. But let’s see what happens. I handle it as they come along."
"Maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test," Trump added.
U.S. officials, who say they expect North Korea could soon launch a long-range ballistic missile, appear to be watching the Korean Peninsula closely ahead of the Christmas holiday.
There were at least four U.S. military aircraft active in the region early Wednesday, including a Global Hawk drone and two variations of an RC-135 spy plane, which can track ballistic missiles and intercept signals, according to the private aviation tracker Aircraft Spots.
Aircraft Spots told VOA it hasn’t tracked so many U.S. military aircraft in the sky around the Korean Peninsula since 2017, during the height of tensions between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Trump administration has publicly dismissed or ignored North Korea’s end-of-year deadline - a posture that has apparently upset North Korean officials.
Earlier this month, North Korean state media released almost daily statements warning of the deadline, including the vague threat about the "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.
"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," said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who focused on the Koreas, 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.
Earlier this month, North Korea conducted two engine tests at a rocket launch site. Experts say the engines apparently were designed for long-range missiles. North Korean state media also recently threatened a “real ballistic missile” under the “nose” of Japan.
North Korea this year has conducted 13 rounds of short- or medium-range ballistic missiles and rocket artillery - making it one of Pyongyang’s busiest ever years for launches.
In April 2018, Kim announced an end to long-range missile and nuclear tests - a move that North Korean state media have recently warned could easily be reversed.
A return to major provocations could upend U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks, which have already been stalled for most of the year.
Trump and Kim failed to reach a deal at their second summit in February in Hanoi. North Korea walked away from working-level negotiations in October and has boycotted the talks ever since.
During a New Year’s speech a year ago, Kim promised he may take a "new way" if the talks did not progress in 2019.
Kim’s upcoming New Year’s speech will be watched closely for additional signs about the country’s direction. Important decisions could also be announced at an upcoming meeting of North Korea’s ruling party, which is set to take place sometime at the end of December.