A few weeks ago concern and speculation about North Korea’s alleged ‘Christmas Surprise’ was reaching a fever pitch. Following the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, and the US killing of Qasem Soleimani, global attention shifted to the latest crisis with Iran. Now that tensions with Tehran appear to be settling down, albeit temporarily in all likelihood, North Korea will come back into focus. One of the conversations starting to swirl around Washington DC right now is based on whether or not Kim Jong Un will take any lessons away from the latest US-Iran confrontation.
The Trump administration acted decisively on Iran over the past week. A major confrontation with Iran was avoided, although the US was prepared to retaliate against Iran if its attacks against two airbases in Iraq had produced US casualties. The Iranian regime looked at the gameboard and wisely decided to step away. President Trump reiterated his promise to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, yet in the next breath he left the door open to future negotiations.
What conclusions should Pyongyang deduce from the Trump administration’s handling of Iran? More important, how will it affect the present state of the US-North Korean relationship? Considering the mindset of the current North Korean leader and his closest ministers, Kim Jong Un could regard the killing of Soleimani as a warning not to provoke the US with more long-range missile tests. On the flip side, Kim could view the US preoccupation with events in the Middle East as an opportunity for North Korea to continue building its nuclear deterrent. Unfortunately for Kim, he laid out a detailed plan of action for the upcoming year at the meeting of the Central Committee in late December. He declared an end to the moratorium on long range missile and nuclear tests, and hinted on the coming of a ‘new strategic weapon.’ Despite the fact he is the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim could be compelled to follow the path he personally laid out even though the strategic conditions may have already shifted. Although the North Korean government appears to the world to be uniform in ideology, and loyalty to Kim, rival factions do exist and the leader could be feeling some pressure from a handful of these, especially those holding influence over the nation’s military.