Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump

There are only three weeks left for the year-end deadline set by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for negotiations with the United States to resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear standoff. If the US cannot offer a plan satisfactory to both sides, North Korea has warned it will take an unspecified “new path” next year.

Although the US has repeatedly said that this is a unilateral deadline set by North Korea, Pyongyang is bound to fulfill its promises considering the country’s system and Kim’s authority. The world has no idea what the “new path” is, but it will highly likely not be beneficial to the Korean Peninsula denuclearization. Thus, the US should treat North Korea’s deadline seriously and consider restarting talks within the remaining time frame.

After talks between North Korea and the US broke down in Stockholm, Sweden, in October, North Korea has been sending signals to the US through Kim’s different inspection tours, short-range missile tests and statements by senior state officials. However, the US did not respond or have direct contact with North Korea. Instead, the US conveyed its intention to restart talks through Sweden. The US move shows that it lacks enough enthusiasm for further negotiations.

According to media reports, North Korea may have tested a new high-thrust engine or even a long-range missile at the Sohae satellite launching station. But instead of trying to take measures to calm North Korea, the US flew reconnaissance aircrafts over the Korean Peninsula in recent days. At the NATO summit in London on December 3, US President Donald Trump even called Kim a “rocket man” again and threatened to use military force against Pyongyang.

However, Trump still stressed that he had a good personal relationship with Kim. Trump also made a phone call to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday. In addition to the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, there may also be other reasons for which Trump made the call. But this at least shows that the US has to some extent realized the severity of the Korean Peninsula issue. Nonetheless, Pyongyang still wishes that Washington change its policies toward Pyongyang. It is important for both sides to translate their expectations into tangible actions, while there isn’t much time left.

North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) will hold its fifth plenary meeting of the seventh Central Committee of WPK later December, according to North Korean media reports. And Kim is set to deliver the New Year speech on January 1, 2020. The two important political agenda will determine Pyongyang’s domestic and foreign policies in 2020, particularly those about denuclearization and how to deal with the US. Given the importance of these two scenarios, a specific group ought to have already been established to draft relevant documents. This means North Korea and the US would have less time to close their deal. As North Koreans have been aware of Kim’s year-end deadline through state media outlets, the country will eventually carry out its promise and its leverage against the US would be medium- and long-range missile tests and nuclear tests.

It is hoped that Washington won’t make light of the year-end deadline set by Kim and will work hard to formulate a pragmatic policy toward Pyongyang within a limited time. US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will possibly visit South Korea later in December to “discuss joint efforts toward progress in the negotiations before the deadline,” South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on December 4. It is hoped Biegun could bring positive signals from Trump.

If Pyongyang and Washington can hold high-level negotiations before the former makes major decisions and even figure out the possibility for a new Kim-Trump summit, it will help mitigate North Korea’s hard-line stance and prevent the situation on the Korean Peninsula from getting worse. In the meantime, it is also hoped that North Korea won’t recklessly cross the redline, otherwise it will push its relations with the US to a dangerous precipice and probably trigger a new round of international sanctions.

The author is director and professor at the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics.

(In association with Global Times)