After we spent part of the summer of 2017 on the brink of a nuclear war with North Korea (no, really, there’s a book about that moment called On the Brink), I put together a solid Twitter collection of DPRK watchers and analysts that I could follow for up-to-the-minute, non-fear-mongering analysis and news of the crisis. Following a relatively quiet — and at times even cautiously optimistic — two years since, that group is now shouting a single warning to anyone who’ll listen: buckle up, because we are headed for a major nuclear crisis with North Korea when the calendar flips over to 2020.
Our editor spent some time inside North Korea. Read about his first-hand experience.
Background: In April of this year, when the second Trump-Kim summit collapsed and everyone went home early, Kim publicly gave the US an end-of-the-year deadline for easing up its economic sanctions-based “maximum pressure” campaign against DPRK… or else.
DPRK’s state-run news agency followed up on this point in May: “Although the U.S. is making desperate and foolish efforts to bring us down by clinging to…the ‘maximum pressure’ aimed at destroying our system, it should bear in mind that such an attempt will…push us dynamically to a direction where the U.S. does not want to see.”
Last month, there were some working level talks that broke down, and North Korea has since refused to engage with the US any further.
On the US side, Trump has made a number of dramatic moves that seem aimed at drawing DPRK back to the table, including offering to cancel some joint military exercises with South Korea and, more dramatically, insisting that South Korea pony up another $5 billion USD to pay for the US military presence in their country.
None of this has worked, and this week North Korea’s Kim Kye Gwan said in a statement, “We are no longer interested in such talks that bring nothing to us. As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can boast of, but get compensation for the successes that President Trump is proud of as his administrative achievements.”
SEOUL — North Korea has a message for President Trump and the United States: The clock is ticking, and a bomb is about to explode.
There are seven weeks until North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is scheduled to deliver a keynote New Year’s Day speech. That will come a day after his self-imposed year-end deadline expires for the United States to come up with new proposals to restart nuclear talks.
What’s next: DPRK has paused its ICBM and nuclear testing for 2019 while waiting for either sanctions relief or its deadline to pass, so it seems likely that when 2020 arrives they’ll return to one or both of these activities.
There has recently been a series of short-range missile tests aimed at ramping up pressure on the US, and MIT’s Vipin Narang suggests that 2020 may even see a nuclear-tipped ICBM detonated over the Pacific (i.e. “Juche Bird,” as it’s jokingly called by DPRK watchers)
For me Kim’s “maximum pressure” testing ladder looks like the below.
IRBM (maybe he just skips)
Underground nuke test
— Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) October 16, 2019
An early 2020 above-ground test of a nuclear missle capable of reaching the US would be public confirmation of what most analysts already presume to be the case, i.e. that North Korea can threaten the entire continental US with its nuclear arsenal. This may well bring us to the brink of war with North Korea.
The National Interest’s Harry Kazianis surveys the larger political landscape of early 2020 and puts it this way: “A North Korea Nuclear Showdown Plus Trump’s Impeachment Could Fuse into the Crisis of Our Time“.
Even if the US doesn’t actually intend to go to war with DPRK, we could stumble into it via a series of mixed signals. This exact scenario is described, in detail, in Jeffrey Lewis’s speculative novel, “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States“.
Lewis’s book, which I’ve read and can highly recommend, lays out a plausible scenario where the US and DPRK bluster their way into a full-blown nuclear exchange that kills millions both in the US and abroad via an escalating cascade of threats, tweets, and misinterpreted military exercises.
Lewis and Kazianis and others have been warning on Twitter about a return to a crisis (or worse) next year.
On the one hand, walking away is a classic North Korean negotiating tactic. On the other hand, if the US has not in fact changed its “calculation” Kim has said there is an end of year deadline before… well, what comes after an SLBM test… https://t.co/JB9aSOVSVD
— Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) October 5, 2019
North Korea telling us directly and explicitly that it sees everything the US is doing–suspending military exercises, seeking working level talks–as an attempt to delay THEIR deadline for us to deliver unilateral sanctions relief. Next stop, nuke crisis https://t.co/LBX4dg0ilD pic.twitter.com/HUEYy4M1aS
— Van Jackson (@WonkVJ) November 17, 2019
North Korea keeps repeating its end of year deadline. We should take this seriously and strike a deal to remove some sanctions to formalize the moratoria on nuclear and ICBM tests. Otherwise 2020 is gonna be 🔥🔥🔥. https://t.co/m2VcHjch7u pic.twitter.com/gRx4rksZmm
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) October 27, 2019
I was at a dinner last night with Thae Yong Ho and he was firm that the end-of-year deadline should be taken seriously — predicts resumption of nuclear tests.
— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) October 27, 2019
Everyone commenting on the end of the year warning at the recent arms control conference in China said the same thing. Something’s coming.
— Gregory Kulacki (@gkucs) October 27, 2019
As Lewis said in response to that last tweet: buckle up. Keep an eye on the news, have a plan, and keep your preps ready, because you don’t want to be one of those people scrambling to buy sold-out iodine tablets.